SANTA MARIA, Brazil -- The nightclub Kiss was hot and steamy from the press of beer-fueled bodies dancing close. The Brazilian country band on stage was whipping the young crowd into a frenzy, launching into another fast-paced, accordion-driven tune and lighting flares that spewed silver sparks into the air.
It was another Saturday night in Santa Maria, a university town of about 260,000 on Brazil's southernmost tip.
Then, in the predawn hours of Sunday, it turned into a scene of indescribable horror as sparks lit a fire in the soundproofing material above the stage, churning out black, toxic smoke as flames raced through the former beer warehouse, killing 231 people.
"I was right there, so even though I was far from the door, at least I realized something was wrong," said Rodrigo Rizzi, a first-year nursing student who was next to the stage when the fire broke out and watched the tragedy unfold, horror-struck and helpless.
"Others, who couldn't see the stage, never had a chance."
There was no fire alarm, no sprinklers, no fire escape. In violation of state safety codes, fire extinguishers were not spaced every 1,500 square feet, and there was only one exit. As the city buried its young yesterday, questions were raised about whether Brazil is up to the task of ensuring safety in venues for the World Cup next year, and the Olympics in 2016. Four people were detained for questioning, including two band members and the nightclub's co-owner.
The cavernous building was divided into several sections, including a pub and a VIP lounge -- and hundreds of the college students and teenagers crammed in couldn't see the stage. They continued to drink and dance, unaware of the danger spreading above them. Then, the place became an inferno.
The band members who headed straight for the door lived. One, Danilo Brauner, went back to get his accordion, and never made it out.
The air turned dense and dark with smoke; there was no light, nothing pointing to the single exit. Rizzi found himself clawing through a panicked crowd that surged blindly toward the door.
People started to panic and run toward the door. The manager, meanwhile, was outside dealing with a drunk and belligerent young man. No one there had any inkling of the desperate scene unfolding just beyond Kiss' black, soundproof double doors, said taxi driver Edson Schifelbain, who was in his car, waiting for passengers.
A security guard poked his head out and said there was a fight. A fraction of a second later, someone inside yelled "Fire!" The manager opened the doors and it was like opening the gates of hell, Schifelbain said.
"The horror I saw in their faces, the terror, I'll never forget," he said.