SAO PAULO, Brazil — A band member, a promoter and the co-owners of a nightclub were arrested Monday in connection with a weekend fire that killed 231 people.
The website for the local court — Rio Grande do Sul Tribunal — said the arrests were for investigative purposes and have five-day limits. A preliminary investigation indicated that a band's pyrotechnics show ignited the fast-moving blaze. One band member was among the dead.
"It was terrible inside — it was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another," police Inspector Sandro Meinerz said.
Funerals were held Monday for about 50 victims of the fire early Sunday at the club Kiss in Santa Maria, at the southern tip of Brazil. More than 130 survivors remained hospitalized.
Brazilian Civil Defense Minister Humberto Viana told the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo that the nightclub's license for fire inspection expired in August. Police authorities had announced that the business license also expired last year and that the nightclub was in the process of renovations.
TIMELINE: Deadly nightclub fires
"It was sheer horror. The emergency exits did not work, and then I lost my friend in the confusion," Matheus Bortolotto, a club patron, told TV Band News. "Then a girl died in my arms. I felt her heart stop beating."
People fleeing the fire were briefly delayed by security guards routinely charged with ensuring that bar tabs are paid, police said. Firefighters arriving minutes later were hampered by the pile of bodies blocking the lone exit.
It's common for bar patrons in Brazil to have a running bar tab throughout the night, better known as a comanda, which they pay before leaving. Patrons are allowed to leave once they provide a stamped comanda to the bouncer. Meinerz said some bouncers initially tried to stop fleeing patrons.
"It was chaotic, and it doesn't seem to have been done in bad faith because several security guards also died," Meinerz said.
Capt. Edi Garcia of the military police told Brazilian TV's O Globo that authorities recovered more than 180 bodies from the bathrooms. "I found people with their heads inside the toilet, trying to find oxygen any way they could," he said.
National Health Minister Alexandre Padilha cautioned that the death toll could grow. Speaking in Santa Maria, He said 75 of those injured were in critical condition and could die.
However, Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a doctor helping coordinate the emergency response, said he was optimistic at least that some of those injured would pull through. More than 40 survivors were sent to neighboring cities for treatment of burns and smoke inhalation, he said.
"One of the problems we're having here is that all these people need to be on respirators and we don't have enough respirators in the city," Beltrame added.
The event raises questions of whether Brazil is up to the task of ensuring safety in such venues ahead of hosting next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
According to state safety codes here, clubs should have one fire extinguisher every 1,500 square feet, as well as multiple emergency exits. Limits on the number of people admitted are to be strictly respected. None of that appears to have happened at the Santa Maria nightclub.
"A problem in Brazil is that there is no control of how many people are admitted in a building," said Joao Daniel Nunes, a civil engineer in nearby Porto Alegre. "They never are clearly stated, and nobody controls how many people enter these nightclubs."
Santa Maria Mayor José Fortunati said dozens of night spots were closed last year for failing to meet code. "At that time, we had lots of protest from those who frequented them," Fortunati said. but "I think that today people understand it better."
Guitarist Rodrigo Martins said a fire extinguisher used by a band member didn't work. "I felt that something was falling from the roof, and I looked up and I saw the fire was spreading, and I shouted, 'Look, it's catching on fire, man, it's catching fire,'" he said.
Martins said the club was packed and estimated the crowd at about 1,200-1,300 people.
"I thought I was going to die there," he said. "There was nothing I could do, with the fire spreading and people screaming in front."
Santa Maria Mayor Cezar Schirmer declared a 30-day mourning period, and Tarso Genro, the governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, said officials were investigating details of the disaster.
"All of Brazil is sad and mourning the deaths that occurred in the Santa Maria fire," former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told Folha de Sao Paulo. "During this hard moment, we express our sympathy to friends and families of the victims and to the entire population of the city, but especially to the mothers and fathers for these irreparable losses. Our deepest condolences."