Brazilian nightclub tragedy – what can be learnt?

As I woke up today to the awful news that nearly 250 young people lost their lives when a fire broke out in a nightclub in Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul, the first thing I asked my husband was “how?”.

How were so many people unable to escape the venue in time? How did the fire start and spread so fast? Did a nightclub holding a reported 300-500, or 2000 people (depending on which news channel you believe), really only have one useable exit?

When you compare Brazil and the UK, there are marked differences when it comes to health and safety regulations. Many schools and workplaces in the UK have been accused of going too far, with one school even banning the use of yo-yos for fear of minor injuries, and kettles being removed from office kitchens. In Brazil on the other hand, it’s common to see construction workers walking along scaffolding without safety harnesses. There are huge pot holes everywhere on major roads and according to my husband, fire drills in apartment blocks and offices are practically non-existent. The use of an indoor firework or something similar at an event like this wouldn’t surprise me.

However, the huge loss of life this weekend indicates that some incredibly flammable material must have contributed to the catastrophe. Does Brazil have a system for conducting fire safety checks on buildings like this and forcing owners to comply? I’m afraid I don’t know. I do know that this is not the first incident of a fire in a nightclub in Brazil that resulted in the loss of lives.

In most nightclubs in Brazil, people order drinks throughout the night and pay their bar tab only on exiting the venue. A few years ago when a fire broke out in a nightclub in Belo Horizonte, it is thought that the security staff on the doors initially prevented the rush of people from leaving the building, wrongly suspecting that people were fleeing because of a fight. Was there a similar case of confusion in the Santa Maria incident? In terms of whether there were sufficient staff present that were trained on what to do in the event of a fire and to manage an evacuation, I am also doubtful.

Unfortunately bodies are still being recovered, so I fear that the death toll will rise further. I only hope that the forensic teams are able to establish exactly what happened so that somehow, lessons can be learned.

My heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims.

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