Brazilians today were mourning the victims of a nightclub blaze in a small college town that left more than 230 people dead and over 100 injured, with many still fighting for their lives.
Shocked survivors, mostly science students in Santa Maria, described how scores of revelers were trampled to death or succumbed to smoke inhalation as blocked exits and rising flames caused panic.
Officials said 233 people had been killed, with 116 more injured. Health Minister Alexandre Padilha told reporters the government's priority was "saving the lives that we still can save."
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, visibly shaken by the news, cut short her visit to the Europe-Latin America summit in Chile to fly to the town.
Brazil cancelled an event today launching a 500-day countdown to next year's World Cup tournament, and the disaster will raise concerns about public safety as Brazil also prepares to host the 2016 Olympic Games.
The fire broke out around 2:00 am local time (0930 IST) yesterday when the nightclub was hosting a university party.
Survivor Michelle Pereira said a member of the band had lifted a flare into the air, which set the ceiling on fire.
Flames quickly engulfed the entire room.
"Everyone was pushing and shoving," another survivor, Taynne Vendruscolo, told reporters.
"The fire started out small, but within seconds it exploded. Those who were close to the stage could not get out."
Santa Maria fire chief Guido de Melo said many people were trampled in the rush to get out. Others were suffocated by the smoke.
Club security had blocked people from leaving, sparking a stampede, he added.
Customers said guards at the club had kept the fire exit locked to prevent people from leaving without paying for their drinks.
"It was sheer horror," Mattheus Bortolotto, a young dentist, told local television. "I lost a very dear friend."
"The emergency exits did not work, and then I lost my friend in the confusion. Then a girl died in my arms. I felt her heart stop beating."
The pandemonium inside the club soon spread outside, he said.
"The metal barriers they used to keep people in line on their way in, ended up blocking people from getting out," Bortolotto said.
Argentina to send skin grafts for Brazilian fire victims
Argentina will send skin grafts to Brazil to treat people suffering serious burns in the wake of a disco fire in Santa Maria city, the Health Ministry announced today. "We will make as many skin grafts available as possible