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Brazil nightclub owner blames country for fire

Thursday - 1/31/2013, 5:22am  ET

Girls cry in front of a makeshift memorial outside the Kiss nightclub where a fire killed over 230 people in Santa Maria, Brazil, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. The repercussions of a tragic nightclub fire in southern Brazil widened Tuesday as mayors around the country cracked down on such venues in their own cities and investigators searched two other nightspots owned by a partner in the club that caught ablaze. Most of the dead were college students 18 to 21 years old, but they also included some minors. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

JULIANA BARBASSA
Associated Press

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 an 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 25-year-old man with burns covering 70 percent of his body succumbed to his wounds. The man's older brother was also killed in the fire and buried on Sunday. Their grieving mother, Eliane Goncalves, had pinned her hopes on her younger son making a recovery.

"When they went out at night, I blessed them," Goncalves said. "I asked myself how I would be able to sleep with both of my boys out. But what could I do, follow them? God bless them."

On Wednesday, a young tagger sprayed oversized white graffiti reading "justice for all" on the facade of the club as onlookers cheered and police watched from below, Brazilian media reported. He then escaped over neighboring roofs, the reports said.

Earlier this week, 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 recovering from a respiratory infection and is said to be suffering from depression in police custody at a hospital in a nearby town.

Lilian Caus, one of the officers watching over 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.

Authorities have said that of the 143 people still hospitalized, more than 70 are still in life-threateningly critical states.

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.

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