Police make 3 arrests in Brazil nightclub fire, seeking 4th suspect; victims' funerals begin

233 students and minors dead

Brazilian police say they've made three arrests and are seeking a fourth person in connection with a nightclub fire that killed more than 230 people.

Inspector Ranolfo Vieira Junior said at a Monday press conference that the arrests are for investigative purposes. He says the detentions have five-day limits.

He declined to identify those arrested or the fourth person sought.

More than 230 people died early Sunday during the fire at a university party in southern Brazil. Police have said they think a band's pyrotechnics show ignited sound insulation on the ceiling, causing the blaze.

The Zero Hora newspaper quotes lawyer Jader Marques as saying his client Elissandro Spohr, a co-owner of the club, was arrested. The paper also says two band members were arrested.

Funerals for the people killed in the fire will begin Monday.

The bodies of the young college students were found piled up just inside the entrance of the Kiss nightclub, among more than 230 people who died in a cloud of toxic smoke after a blaze enveloped the crowded locale within seconds and set off a panic.

Hours later, the horrific chaos had transformed into a scene of tragic order, with row upon row of polished caskets of the dead lined up in the community gymnasium in the university city of Santa Maria. Many of the victims were under 20 years old, including some minors.

An early investigation into the tragedy revealed that security guards briefly prevented partygoers from leaving through the sole exit. And the bodies later heaped inside that doorway slowed firefighters trying to get in.

"It was terrible inside -- it was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another," said police inspector Sandro Meinerz. "We had to use trucks to remove them. It took about six hours to take the bodies away."

Survivors and another police inspector, Marcelo Arigony, said security guards briefly tried to block people from exiting the club. Brazilian bars routinely make patrons pay their entire tab at the end of the night before they are allowed to leave.

"It was chaotic and it doesn't seem to have been done in bad faith because several security guards also died," he told The Associated Press.

The fire broke out sometime before 3 a.m. Sunday and the fast-moving fire and toxic smoke created by burning foam sound insulation material on the ceiling engulfed the club within seconds. Firefighters and ambulances could do little to stop it.

Authorities said band members who were on the stage when the fire broke out later talked with police and confirmed they used pyrotechnics during their show.

Meinerz, who coordinated the investigation at the nightclub, said one band member died after escaping because he returned inside the burning building to save his accordion. The other band members escaped alive because they were the first to notice the fire.

"There was so much smoke and fire, it was complete panic, and it took a long time for people to get out, there were so many dead," she said.

Most victims died from smoke inhalation rather than burns. Many of the dead, about equally split between young men and women, were also found in the club's two bathrooms, where they fled apparently because the blinding smoke caused them to believe the doors were exits.

There were questions about the club's operating license. Police said it was in the process of being renewed, but it was not clear if it was illegal for the business to be open. A single entrance area about the size of five door spaces was used both as an entrance and an exit.

Family members of those killed walked around the gym in a daze Sunday evening, shuffling between caskets or holding one another and weeping as they identified loved ones and tried to make sense of what had happened.

Elaine Marques Goncalves lost her son Deivis in the fire. Another son who attended the college party at the nightclub, Gustavo, was barely alive after suffering two cardiac arrests caused by smoke inhalation.
She learned of the blaze after the mother of her sons' friends called her early Sunday.

"My boys were not home and I had no news. I turned on the TV - the tragedy was all over the television," she said at the makeshift morgue. "All I knew was they had gone to a club, I didn't know which one. I kept saying: `Where do I start? Where do I go?'"

Within hours the community gym was 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.

The gathering was a party organized by students from several academic departments from the Federal University of Santa Maria. Such organized university parties are common throughout Brazil.

Survivor Michele Pereira told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage when members of the band lit some sort of flare.

"The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward," she said. "At that point, the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak, but in a matter of seconds it spread."

Guitarist Rodrigo Martins told Radio Gaucha that the band, Gurizada Fandangueira, started playing at 2:15 a.m. "and we had played around five songs when I looked up and noticed the roof was burning."

Police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello said by telephone that the toll had risen to 233 with the death of a hospitalized victim. He said earlier that the death toll was likely made worse because the nightclub appeared to have just one exit through which patrons could exit.

Federal Health Minister Alexandre Padhilha told a news conference that most of the 117 people treated in hospitals had been poisoned by gases they breathed during the fire. Only a few suffered serious burns, he said.

Sunday's fire 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.
 

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