Santa Maria – What went wrong

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The Santa Maria tragedy is the second largest in Brazilian history, after the Niterói circus fire of 1961 (in which 500 people died). When looking at the facts of this most recent and immensely sad “accident”, it’s easy to see how it all could have been prevented with a simple safety measure or two.

At its current count, 231 young people died on Saturday night in the Santa Maria nightclub in Rio Grande do Sul, while 90 are being treated in hospitals. The circumstances under which it occurred mirror quite closely that of the late 2004 Cromagnon nightclub fire in Buenos Aires when 194 young people died. I’d like to briefly look at a few of the things that went wrong which perhaps separately, and most definitely when combined, contributed to such a high loss of life in this latest tragedy.

First, there’s the fact that pyrotechnics in enclosed spaces is illegal in Brazil and thus the nightclub was operating without license to do so. The manager of the club would have had to know the specifics of the show and the band would have needed to mention they were going to use pyrotechnic devices. It seems everyone failed in these respects.

Second, there’s the inconvenience of paying when you leave a club. My expat friends and I were actually discussing this recently before I left Rio and our conclusion was that it only adds to frustration on the part of the club-goer to have to wait in a long line at the end of a long night. To get this done, people are being hired for extra roles and duties when the bartenders should just be entrusted with processing cash and credit cards on an as-they-come basis. On Saturday night, when the fire began, the club’s security detail made sure no one could leave without paying their bills. This could be said to have contributed to the stampede that happened in the main area next to the exit.

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Third, the cause of death of the majority of victims was not being burned, it was smoke inhalation. I’m no expert on ventilation requirements for leisure establishments but I do wonder if possibly poor ventilation contributed to more people dying rather than less. Surely, their inability to leave, both via the front doors and the already-locked emergency doors, is a more crucial point in their loss of life. But, if house fans can have a reverse rotation option for sucking air up, ventilation systems must have some equivalent.

In addition, there are several other points to be made. The club was said to have been over capacity and most that died were between 16 and 20 yrs old, meaning many were underage and not supposed to be there. Plus, fireworks in a small show, not a good idea. In other words, tons of things going wrong at the same time and the question of who to blame is now up to the authorities (though it might be the authorities themselves who failed to enforce safety measures). Nonetheless, all kinds of establishment owners all over Brazil (and the world) should now be asking themselves a long list of questions about what may prevent such a sad event from happening again.

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Here’s a well-written piece on the same matter, by the New York Times.

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3 thoughts on “Santa Maria – What went wrong

  1. Its such an appalling waste, with so many apparent failures at this venue……and you have to wonder about Brazilian fire regulations (or their enforcement) in general. I cant believe there wasn’t a smoke/firm alarm which would have alerted the door security staff immediately so they would not have initially stopped people from leaving. I’m no expert but Brazil seems to be years behind the UK. I was amazed when I moved into my apartment to find there was no smoke alarm in the building.

  2. I’m glad you’re reflecting on what went wrong. It seems to me that there is ONE rule that should be followed by clubs and bands that would have prevented this and other accidents if followed: NEVER, EVER use pyrotechnics in an enclosed environment! This rule, if followed, would have prevented this accident and would also have prevented the club fire in Rhode Island that killed over a hundred people.

    More ventilation isn’t a solution, since we all know that when we blow on charcoal it makes the fire bigger. More airflow might actually have encouraged the fire to get larger. What this band needed, if it wanted to do pyrotechnics, is an open-air environment with no walls and no roof.

    Since bands have strong financial motivation to do pyrotechnics even in inappropriate environments, a law is needed (if it doesn’t already exist) that would forbid and outlaw such displays.

    In the present, in seems that bands are relied upon to use good judgment and skill when lighting pyrotechnics indoors. But, this fire and the one in Rhode Island demonstrate that bands often lack that skill and good judgment and there is no reason to assume that bands will be more responsible, absent a law that simply forbids such displays.

  3. Tom Wood makes a good point about that lack of adequate, well-lighted and well-signed security exits is another reason why this could occur.

    I used to go to an enormous club called Girus in Pará de Minas that had many distinct environments inside but few clear ways to get out. Any club that lacks adequate exits and red signs saying “Saida” should be closed until it complies with fire safety rules.

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