SANTA MARIA, Brazil — Adherbal Ferreira doesn’t look like a street vandal, just an exhausted father demanding justice.
Short and slightly stooped, with graying hair and heavy eyes, Ferreira stands outside the burned-out Kiss nightclub in southern Brazil where his daughter was among 242 youths killed in a January 2013 fire. He points to the graffiti he recently painted on the club’s facade, which reads: “Here was the greatest murder of Rio Grande do Sul. And the justice???? This is Brazil.”
Such was the general sentiment during Sunday's All Soul’s Day, when people throughout this predominantly Catholic nation visited the graves of loved ones in cemeteries to pay their respects. Here in Santa Maria, in the far southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, All Soul’s Day has became yet another reminder to victims' families of the difficulty to reach any sense of closure nearly two years after one the deadliest fire disasters in history.
“There’s a negligence toward our situation,” Ferreira, who leads a victims' association, said in an interview outside the charred nightclub that still has its garish pink “Kiss” sign. “We call them [club owners and city officials] assassins. There was a total failure of the municipality in relation to many things.”
Last October city authorities ordered families to remove a makeshift memorial of photos and flowers to begin a cleanup of the site, which is sandwiched between abandoned buildings in the bustling center of this hilly university town. But no clean-up efforts have begun, and now Ferreira’s crude graffiti is the only memorial to the victims as a slow-moving court trial and delayed regulatory overhauls further frustrate families awaiting justice.
The blaze began when a flare lit by a band member as part of an illegal pyrotechnics show set the ceiling’s soundproofing foam afire. A fire extinguisher failed, and then security guards at the sole exit initially restricted people from leaving, reportedly thinking that the 1,000-plus attendees (far over capacity) sought to skip their bills. Dozens of victims were found in the bathrooms piled atop one another; they apparently died while trying to squeeze out a window.
“We have a whole archive of photos from the club that will never be published,” said Humberto Trezzi, a journalist for state daily Zero Hora who spent a month in Santa Maria reporting on the tragedy. Santa Maria is a city torn between officials seeking to move forward and families refusing to forget, said Trezzi, a former war correspondent in Libya and Angola.
“In a war you expect violence, and when people die it’s maybe five to 10 people,” he said. “In this case 242 people died suddenly at a dance club in an average city. It’s more than horrible.”
Forgotten Reform Efforts
In the aftermath of the blaze many authorities, including an emotional President Dilma Rousseff, called for stronger fire and security regulations. Dozens of bills were introduced in both chambers of the Brazilian Congress, among them legislation for the nation's first fire safety code. But the cries for reform were quickly forgotten.
Nearly two years later, no federal regulations have been adopted and many public venues nationwide are rife with the same dangers that led to the Kiss tragedy, according to Rodrigo Machado Tavares, a Recife-based civil engineer and fire-safety consultant. Slow-moving bureaucracy and infighting among state fire departments has delayed adoption of a national fire safety code that might enforce standards, Tavares said.
“It’s supposed to take no longer than two months to make a legislative change," he said. "But it’s been two years. It’s just not a priority.”
Brazil still relies on states to determine fire codes. Rio Grande do Sul, for its part, approved new fire safety legislation in December 2013 that will enforce preexisting requirements on smoke control and the use of flame-retardant materials. But legislation is only half the battle.
“It’s not only about legislation, but about enforcement,” added Tavares. “Our current fire safety legislation in every state is poor, but if they could be better enforced things could be okay.”
Investigators have indicted 27 people for prosecution, including Santa Maria Mayor Cesar Augusto Schirmer, five firefighters charged with negligence, and three others charged with falsifying public documents related to the club's fire permit. But the state court has only proceeded with a trial against the two club owners and two band members on homicide charges, according to chief police inspector Marcelo Arigony. The investigation is ongoing.
“Brazilian justice is very slow,” said victims’ lawyer Luiz Fernando Smaniotto. He said politics is obstructing justice, and pointed to how it took five years before any judgments were handed down from the República Cromañón nightclub fire in Buenos Aires a decade ago that killed 194 people. “It’s going to be very difficult to find anyone guilt. There’s no interest in finding the real truth.”
Some Have Learned a Lesson
Still, some Brazilian security officials say they have seen concrete changes, including the closure of many unsafe bars and clubs throughout Rio Grande do Sul. Helcio Orlando Sauer, head of security for the city of Blumenau’s annual Oktoberfest, which attracts about half-a-million attendees, said that in the wake of the Kiss tragedy he required a fire brigade on hand at all hours, increased the number of exits, and decreased the maximum capacity limit.
“After the accident in Santa Maria many modifications were made for how many people are allowed in places, not only here but throughout the country,” Sauer said. “That event started a whole conversation about what should be done to prevent it from happening again.”
Better safety standards are also coming from the influx of foreign brands such as Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International, which adhere not to local fire codes but to more-rigorous internal standards, said Tavares. Rising use of insurance by Latin American businesses is also fueling demand for higher safety standards.
But Tavares said he still routinely enters high-end hotels, popular restaurants, and public venues in major cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo that are overpacked and lacking in sprinklers, smoke detectors, or adequate exits. And with Brazil’s Congress now divided more than ever after a bitter national election in October, he foresees no legislative progress soon.
“I just stay near to the exits,” he said.
At Santa Rita Cemetery outside the city on All Soul's Day, 30-year-old Jonathan Ferreira knelt in the drizzling rain at the gravestone of his sister Jennefer, killed at age 22 and buried alongside a friend who was also killed in the fire. Their shared gravestone bears a photo of them together.
“I want justice at the very least for it to not occur again,” he said. “Because in the future, I could have a child, a grandchild, and if today we don’t take this seriously, other events could occur.”
Stephen Kurczy, a Brazil correspondent, has reported from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the jungles of the Amazon. Somewhere along the way he became addicted to açaí, a purple slushy made from the powerfruit.