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A community gym soon became a horror scene, with body after body lined up on the floor, partially covered with black plastic as family members identified kin.
Outside the gym, police held up personal objects — a black purse, a blue high-heeled shoe — as people seeking information on loved ones crowded around hoping not to recognize anything being shown them.
Decade after deadly Rhode Island fire, lessons for Brazil
Fire officials and survivors of a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people in Rhode Island say there are lessons for Brazil and elsewhere from sweeping changes made after the fire.
A fire code enacted after the blaze means movie theaters, nightclubs and concert halls now must announce the location of emergency exits before each show.
Many venues were forced to install sprinkler systems and make other renovations. One theater that shut down six years ago because it couldn’t afford the changes reopened on Saturday after raising about $200,000 to install new fireproof seat upholstery and other upgrades.
Fire survivors say bouncers are more attentive to safety problems, as are concertgoers.
One fire chief says other states and countries would save lives if they adopted Rhode Island’s rules.
The party was organized by students from several academic departments at the Federal University of Santa Maria. Such organized university parties are common throughout Brazil.
Police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello said by telephone that the toll had risen to 233 with the death of a hospitalized victim.
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff arrived Sunday to visit the injured after cutting short her trip to a Latin American-European summit in Chile.
"It is a tragedy for all of us," said Rousseff, who began her political career in the state where the tragedy took place.
Dr. Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a professor at the medical school of the Federal University of Santa Maria. said he was told the club had been filled far beyond its capacity. He had gone to the city’s Caridade Hospital to help victims.
"Large amounts of toxic smoke quickly filled the room, and I would say that at least 90 percent of the victims died of asphyxiation," Beltrame told the AP.
"The toxic smoke made people lose their sense of direction so they were unable to find their way to the exit. At least 50 bodies were found inside a bathroom."
In the hospital, the doctor "saw desperate friends and relatives walking and running down the corridors looking for information," he said, calling it "one of the saddest scenes I have ever witnessed."
Rodrigo Moura, identified by the newspaper Diario de Santa Maria as a security guard at the club, said it was at its maximum capacity of between 1,000 and 2,000 people, and partygoers were pushing and shoving to escape.
Santa Maria Mayor Cezar Schirmer declared a 30-day mourning period, and Tarso Genro, the governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, said officials were investigating the cause of the disaster.
The blaze was the deadliest in Brazil since at least 1961, when a fire that swept through a circus killed 503 people in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro.
Sunday’s fire also appeared to be the worst at a nightclub since December 2000, when a welding accident reportedly set off a fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309 people.
In 2004, at least 194 people died in a fire at an overcrowded nightclub in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Seven members of the band playing at the club were sentenced to prison for starting the flames.
A blaze at the Lame Horse nightclub in Perm, Russia, killed 152 people in December 2009 after an indoor fireworks display ignited a plastic ceiling decorated with branches.
Similar circumstances led to a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people in the United States. Pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the 1980s rock band Great White set ablaze cheap soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling of a Rhode Island music venue.
The band performing in Santa Maria, Gurizada Fandangueira, plays a driving mixture of local Brazilian country music styles. Guitarist Martin told Radio Gaucha the musicians are already seeing hostile messages.
"People on the social networks are saying we have to pay for what happened," he said. "I’m afraid there could be retaliation".
Associated Press writers Marco Sibaja contributed to this report from Brasilia, Brazil, and Stan Lehman and Bradley Brooks contributed from Sao Paulo.
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