Police seek criminal charges in Brazil club fire

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SAO PAULO (AP) — Criminal charges are being sought against 16 people in connection with the nightclub fire that killed 241 people in southern Brazil earlier this year, police said Friday.

Inspector Marcelo Arigony told a news conference that the mayor and fire chief of Santa Maria, the city where the fire occurred, could also be held responsible for the accident because of the negligent safety inspections of the nightclub.

But he said that because Mayor Cezar Schirmer is an elected official, the police cannot file charges against him and only the Rio Grande do Sul State Supreme Court and the city's legislature can determine if he is charged. Only a military court can charge the fire chief, because the department is under the control of the police, which is part of the military.

The fire roared through the crowded, windowless Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria on Jan. 27, filling the air with flames and thick, toxic smoke.

Arigony said the band performing at the club lit a flare, which ignited flammable soundproofing foam on the ceiling. The cyanide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide released by the ensuing fire "was what killed the people inside."

The inspector said police are seeking murder charges against the nightclub's two owners, their manager, and three band members, among others.

The lesser charge of manslaughter is being sought against several city officials for granting the club an operating permit "when it was obvious that minimum safety and fire prevention measures were not in place," Arigony said.

The investigation showed numerous "irregularities," including flawed fire extinguishers, overcrowded of the building, and only one door leading in and out of the club.

Results of the investigation will be forwarded to state prosecutors, who will decide whether to file the charges sought by police.

Douglas Medeiros, whose 18-year-old girlfriend Thanise Correa Garcia died in the blaze, said that seeking criminal charges against top officials was a move in the right direction.

"This investigation was only the first step, now it's up to the prosecutors to charge these guys," Medeiros said by phone. "I'm keeping my expectations low because I don't want to be disappointed. It's hard to believe these powerful officials will be charged. We're waiting for them to be jailed — only then will I be satisfied."

Two days after the fire, Arigony told reporters that the band knowingly purchased flares meant for outdoor use because they cost just $1.25 each, compared with $35 for an indoor flare.

The blaze began around 2:30 a.m. local time during a performance by Gurizada Fandangueira, a country music band that used pyrotechnics during their shows. The band's guitarist said that the 615 square-meter (6,650-square-foot) club was packed with about 1,200-1,300 people. The police have said the capacity for a club of that size is less than 700 people.

Kiss apparently had no alarm or sprinkler system and only one working exit, leaving the crowd to search desperately for a way out.

About 50 victims were found in the club's two bathrooms, where they crowded after blinding smoke evidently caused them to believe the doors were exits.

Brazil has long turned a blind eye to safety and infrastructure concerns about public gathering places. The disaster, the worst fire of its kind in more than a decade, raised questions about whether Brazilian authorities can ensure safety in such venues as the country prepares to host next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

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