Brazil nightclub owner blames country for fire

World

Brazil nightclub owner blames country for fire

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Web Producer: Lucy Valencia, Assignment Desk Editor

SANTA MARIA, Brazil (AP) — The owner of a nightclub in southern Brazil where more than 230 people died in a fire last weekend deflected blame to "the whole country," as well as to architects and inspectors charged with making sure the building was safe, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Attorney Jader Marques said his client, Elissandro Spohr, "regretted having ever been born" because of his grief over the fire, but still blamed Sunday's tragedy on "a succession of errors made by the whole country."

Police investigating the blaze have said it likely started when a country music band performing at the Kiss nightclub in the college town of Santa Maria lit a flare, which ignited flammable soundproofing foam on the ceiling. That initial error was compounded by the near-total lack of emergency infrastructure such as a fire alarms or sprinkler systems, police have said. The club also had only one working door and a faulty fire extinguisher.

Marques insisted in a phone interview with The Associated Press that "my client's responsibility is having trusted too much in the inspectors and in those responsible for the construction."

"Hindsight is 20-20," he said, stressing that public officials had signed off on the club.

The number of injured jumped to 143 Wednesday after 22 people were admitted to hospitals with respiratory problems after having escaped the club apparently unharmed. Brazil Health Minister Alexandre Padilha has urged the fire's survivors to remain alert for any symptoms of so-called "chemical pneumonia," which can take up to three days to develop following exposure to toxic fumes and smoke.

The blaze also claimed another life late Tuesday, raising the death toll to 235, as a 21-year-old man with burns covering 70 percent of his body succumbed to his wounds. Brazilian media reported that the man's brother was also killed in the fire.

Police detained Spohr, the club's other co-owner and two musicians who were playing in the club when the fire broke out, and are holding them for five days as part of the investigation. Spohr is in police custody at a hospital in a nearby town, where he's recovering from a respiratory infection and is said to be suffering from depression.

Lilian Caus, one of the officers watching Spohr, said he had made a suicidal gesture, removing a shower hose and tying it to a bathroom window Tuesday.

"By the way it was tied it looked like he wanted to use it to hang himself by the neck, but he didn't even use it," Caus said. "There seems to have been the intention to use it."

Marques denied reports that overcrowding helped cause Sunday's tragedy, insisting there were only 600 to 700 people in the club at any one time. Capacity for the 615-square-meter (6,650-square-foot) nightspot stood at less than 700, though the band's guitarist told media that the space was packed with an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 people. Police have given the same estimate.

Marques insisted that any higher tallies of people at the club that night were due to club-goers cycling in and out.

The tragedy raised questions about the reliability of safety regulations in a nation set to host the World Cup and Olympic Games. Documents obtained by The Associated Press, including past building and fire safety plan permits issued to the club, showed that the single exit, the foam insulation and other contributors to the tragedy didn't violate laws.

"Do I agree with the fact that there was only one exit? No," said Maj. Gerson Pereira, an inspector with the local fire department. "Do I agree that the roof was covered with flammable material? No, I don't. I would have liked to shut down this place, but then the firefighters could be sued" because no law had been broken.

The same documents show that other regulations were broken, including irregularities in the fire safety inspection of the club, as well as pyrotechnics used by the band that police say should not have been set off indoors. Police inspectors say any of the violations was reason enough to shut the club down.

One document shows the club had already been labeled by fire officials a "medium" risk for a fire. By state law, that designation requires the club undergo annual inspections, but records show that the last inspection took place in August 2011.

Survivors have said the club's fire extinguishers failed to work in early attempts to battle the blaze. Under state law, an extinguisher must have a receipt showing that it had been independently inspected within a year.

Marcelo Arigony, the lead police investigator in the case, said Tuesday that it was clear the fire extinguishers had not been inspected and that they were clearly cheap models that should not be used anywhere.

"It's not that this club was working to come within this or that law — the place should have never been open in the first place," Arigony said. "This is a problem that is seen across Brazil, these laws. I can only hope this tragedy brings about change."

Jaime Moncada, a U.S.-based fire-safety consultant with nearly three decades experience in Latin America including large projects in Brazil, said he was not surprised that one exit was permissible under local law.

Shown a blueprint of the club obtained by the AP, he calculated that the farthest point from the front door was 105 feet (32 meters), and regulations in most Brazilian states dictate that a second exit is required only if the distance is 131 feet (40 meters) or more.

For the same reason of distance, Moncada said sprinklers and alarms would not be required.

"For an American audience, it is crazy to think that a place would have only one exit," he said.

In Brazil, he added, that would be the norm.

Amid the shock of what was the world's deadliest nightclub fire in a decade, changes in Brazil seemed on the horizon.

In Brasilia, the nation's capital, lawmakers in the lower house worked on a proposal that would require federal safety minimum standards across Brazil. Now states individually create such laws. The newspaper O Globo reported on its website that the mayor's office in Santa Maria ordered all nightclubs closed for 30 days while inspections are carried out.

Elsewhere, the government of the country's biggest city, Sao Paulo, set to host the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, promised tougher security regulations for nightclubs.

Outraged citizens in Santa Maria are demanding change.

Elise Parode, an 18-year-old student taking part in a protest before City Hall, chanted with all her might along with about 500 others, pushing up against the door of the building as municipal guards kept them from entering.

"We want justice! We want the government held accountable, just like the owners of the bar!" she yelled as the crowd around held aloft poster-size photos of the fire's victims. "Our own government doesn't know the laws — we're not safe until they do."

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