Mr. Martins confirmed that the group’s accordion player, Danilo Jacques, 28, died, while the five other band members made it out safely. Mr. Martins said he thought Mr. Jacques made it out of the building and later returned to save his accordion.
Mr. Martins said the group nearly always used the so-called Sputnik pyrotechnics machine and that it had never before caused any problem, even in smaller venues. An electrical short circuit also possibly could have been to blame for the fire, he suggested.
Still, police were leaning toward the pyrotechnics as the likely cause of the fire. Police Inspector Antonio Firmino, who’s part of the team investigating Sunday’s blaze, said it appeared the club’s ceiling was covered with an insulating foam made from a combustible material that ignited with the pyrotechnics. He said the number and state of the exits is under investigation but that it appeared that a second door was “inadequate,” as it was small and protected by bars that wouldn’t open.
Television images from Santa Maria showed black smoke billowing out of the club as shirtless young men who attended the university party joined firefighters using axes and sledgehammers to pound at the hot-pink exterior walls in an effort to reach those trapped inside. Teenagers sprinted from the scene after the fire began, desperately seeking help. Others carried injured and burned friends away in their arms. An almost equal number of men and women comprised the dead.
The party was organized by students from several academic departments at the Federal University of Santa Maria. Such organized university parties are common throughout Brazil.
Beltrame said he was told the club had been filled far beyond its capacity, and the crowds and thickness of the smoke made it hard for people to find their way out.
“Large amounts of toxic smoke quickly filled the room, and I would say that at least 90 percent of the victims died of asphyxiation,” Beltrame said. “The toxic smoke made people lose their sense of direction so they were unable to find their way to the exit. At least 50 bodies were found inside a bathroom.”
Dr. Beltrame said people who were inside the club and thought they had made it out safely have started to turn up at area hospitals with symptoms of smoke inhalation, which he said can take hours or even days to appear. He estimated that about 15 people have sought out help in the past few hours and said some have had to be intubated.
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 the cause of the disaster.
The blaze was the deadliest in Brazil since at least 1961, when a fire that swept through a circus killed 503 people in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro.
Sunday’s fire also appeared to be the worst at a nightclub since December 2000, when a welding accident reportedly set off a fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309 people.