Latin America & Caribbean

Santa Maria fire: Victims' families await justice a year on

The heart formed by 242 candles in front of the Kiss nightclub during the overnight vigil

BBC Brasil's Julia Carneiro reports from Santa Maria, southern Brazil, where a vigil was held overnight to mark the first anniversary of the deadly nightclub fire that killed 242 people last year.

It is well past midnight and the hundreds of people gathered in a vigil in front of the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, start counting out loud while 242 candles are lit in the middle of the street, forming a heart of flames.

As they reach 242 - the number of victims in last year's nightclub fire - the chant breaks into cries for justice. Sirens sound at 03:00 local time to mark the hour when, a year ago, the nightmare started.

Kiss's once charred facade is now covered with pictures of the young, smiling faces of those who died, most of whom were university students enjoying a Saturday night out.

Image caption The facade of the Kiss nightclub, now covered with pictures and banners

Brazil's deadliest fire in the last 50 years started after a member of the band performing onstage lit a flare as part of the show.

Sparks hit the ceiling and flames quickly spread over the foam used for acoustic protection.

Holes were hammered into this facade as firemen, survivors and parents desperately attempted to rescue those trapped inside.

Bodies blackened by smoke were carried out of the venue and taken to hospital - or loaded on to army trucks and taken straight to a makeshift morgue set up in a sports gymnasium.

Police investigations showed that a series of faults made the fire especially deadly.

The venue was too full, had only one entrance/exit and did not have the proper licences. The fire extinguishers failed and there were no lights showing the exit.

Seeking justice

Image caption One of the victims' mothers set up a shrine with objects that belonged to her daughter, who would have turned 23 on Saturday

A year on, pain has given way to anger and bitterness as the families and friends of the victims sense how hard it will be to achieve justice.

Eight people are being tried for the accident - among them two of the disco's owners and two band members.

The four were arrested right after the fire but released on bail in May.

Police say the disco did not have all the documents required by law, and the victims' families are demanding that the authorities answer to charges of negligence.

"Some people say we have to get on with our lives," says Ligiane Righi da Silva, wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of the smiling face of her daughter, Andrielle.

"But nobody knows what it's like to wake up with a phone call at five in the morning, spend the day looking for your daughter and find her [charred] body at five in the afternoon."

Andrielle had been celebrating her 22nd birthday with her four girlfriends. All died.

Image caption Kelen Ferreira burnt her arms, hands and lost her right foot in the fire

Their mothers founded the NGO Forever Cinderellas to carry out charity work in their memory.

"It's so hard to get up every day and face her bedroom door. I keep expecting her to come back," says Ms Silva, who tattooed Andrielle and the name of her other daughter, now an only child, on her wrist.

Police initially pointed to the city's mayor, Cezar Schirmer, and other city officials as some of those who were to blame for the event.

Public prosecutors dropped the charges for lack of evidence, infuriating organisations formed by victims' parents.

But the police are still carrying out their investigations and the public prosecutors will have to re-examine the whole process after new reports are produced.

Parents have also been demanding more action to prevent similar accidents.

In the aftermath of the fire, the authorities held raids in venues across Brazil. The accident prompted a debate on the country's safety regulations and triggered demands for more rigorous legislation and enforcement.

A year on, the spotlight has moved elsewhere and there is less urgency in Congress to look into the issue.

A new law was drafted in June to establish national safety standards in nightclubs, bars and theatres, but has yet to be voted on by Congress.

'Wall of fallen people'

Image caption As part of the vigil, 242 bodies were painted on the tarmac to symbolise the scale of the loss

The fire's first anniversary is being marked with memorial services, marches and charity campaigns.

The city's shops have white ribbons and flowers on their windows. A conference has been debating safety and prevention in public venues, gathering families and friends of the victims - and survivors of the tragedy.

The fire left more than 600 people injured.

Twenty-eight-year-old Natalia Greff still has to undergo respiratory physiotherapy every week.

She was with two old friends who had travelled to Santa Maria for a reunion. One of them was celebrating his birthday.

When the chaos started, they thought it was a fight - until they saw the fire.

"We took three steps and a curtain of black smoke descended on us. Another three steps and I hit a wall of fallen people.

"A crowd came from behind and pressed me towards them. My friend hugged me and suddenly I felt his body loosen. I fainted onto the pile right after that."

Natalia then remembers her head banging on the tarmac as a man pulled her outside by her legs and screamed for help.

She went into a coma and woke up four days later in a hospital in the state's capital, Porto Alegre. Only later was she told that her two friends were dead.

Twenty-year-old Kelen Ferreira suffered third-degree-burns over 20% of her body, including her arms and hands.

Her right leg had to be amputated below the knee because her shoe had become glued to her foot, producing necrosis.

Kelen goes through a gruelling routine of treatment every day, but has now managed to return to university, where she studies occupational therapy.

"I want to graduate and help others recover from burns and amputations."

She stopped hiding her scars and now wears short-sleeved shirts showing her arms.

"I figured these marks will be with me forever."

So Kelen added another one to her body - and had the word "faith" tattooed on the back of her neck.

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