PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — A fire apparently ignited by a flare or firework from a band’s pyrotechnic display swept through a nightclub filled with hundreds of university students early Sunday morning in Santa Maria, Brazil, leaving at least 233 people dead, police said.
Bodies were hauled from the club, called Kiss, to hospitals in Santa Maria throughout Sunday morning. Some survivors were taken to the nearby city of Porto Alegre.
Col. Guido Pedroso de Melo, the commander of the city’s fire department, said security guards had locked exits, which intensified the panic as people in the club stampeded to the doors.
It appeared to be the world’s deadliest nightclub fire in more than a decade.
Survivors described a scene of mayhem as patrons rushed for the main exit.
“I only got out because I am strong,” Ezequiel Corte Real, 23, told reporters. He said he helped others escape.
Officials said the cause of the blaze was still under investigation.
Television images showed smoke pouring out of the nightclub as shirtless young men who had attended a university party joined firefighters using axes and sledgehammers to pound at windows and walls to free those trapped inside.
Colonel de Melo told the O Globo newspaper that firefighters had a hard time getting inside because “there was a barrier of bodies blocking the entrance.”
“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,” survivor Luana Santos Silva told the Globo TV network. She said the fire spread so fast in the packed club that firefighters and ambulances could do little to stop it.
Another survivor, Michele Pereira, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage when members of the band lit flares that started the conflagration.
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.”
“It might have happened because of the Sputnik, the machine we use to create a luminous effect with sparks. It’s harmless; we never had any trouble with it.
“When the fire started, a guard passed us a fire extinguisher. The singer tried to use it but it wasn’t working.”
Police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello said by phone that the death toll had risen to 233. Officials had counted 232 bodies that had been taken for identification to a gym in Santa Maria, at the southern tip of Brazil, near the borders with Argentina and Uruguay.
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.
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff visited the injured after cutting short her trip to a Latin American-European summit in Chile. “It is a tragedy for all of us,” she said.
Most of the dead apparently were asphyxiated, said Dr. Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a professor at the medical school of the Federal University of Santa Maria who went to the city’s Caridade Hospital to help victims.
“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. Apparently they confused the bathroom door with the exit door,” he said by phone.
Rodrigo Moura, identified by the newspaper Diario de Santa Maria as a club security guard, said it was at its maximum capacity of between 1,000 and 2,000, and party-goers were pushing and shoving to escape.
Santa Maria Mayor Cezar Schirmer declared a 30-day mourning period.
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.
In 2003, a nightclub fire killed 100 people in Rhode Island. Pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the 1980s rock band Great White set ablaze soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling.