Coffins lined a gymnasium in Santa Maria, Brazil, today as family members tried to identify their loved ones after a fast-moving fire tore through a crowded nightclub Sunday morning, killing more than 230 people and injuring hundreds more.
A community gym near the popular Kiss nightclub has been converted to a temporary morgue were family members were led in one by one Sunday night and early this morning to identify the dead. Outside the gym police held up personal objects, including a black purse and blue high-heeled shoe, as people seeking information on loved ones crowded around, hoping not to recognize anything they were being shown.
"Doctors from other parts of Brazil were flown in to assist the medical side of this," BBC reporter Julia Carneiro told ABC News this morning. "One hundred people are injured and in hospital. Some have been flown to other cities that have better hospital capacity."
Flames and smoke outraced a terrified crowd at the Kiss nightclub, located in the southern city of Santa Maria, shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday morning. Panicked partygoers tried to outrun flames and black, thick smoke, but the club appeared to have only one open exit, police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello told The Associated Press.
Police confirmed that the toll had risen to 233 with the death of a hospitalized victim.
Hours after the fire, cellphones on the victims were ringing inside the still-smoldering nightclub as family members tried to contact their loved ones, Brazilian radio reporter Sara Bodowsky told "World News" anchor David Muir.
"It's really like a war zone in here. We have 232 bodies laid down, side by side, so the families go inside one by one. They look at the bodies," Bodowsky said.
The first funerals for the victims were scheduled to begin later today for those families who have identified their loved ones.
"It was terrible inside. It was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another," police inspector Sandro Meinerz said Sunday. "We had to use trucks to remove them. It took about six hours to take the bodies away."
Investigators believe the blaze began when a band's small pyrotechnics show ignited foam sound insulating material on the ceiling, releasing a putrid haze that caused scores of people to choke to death.
Survivors and police inspector Marcelo Arigony said security guards briefly tried to block people from exiting the club in the mass confusion and chaos moments after the fire began.
But Arigony said the guards didn't appear to block fleeing patrons for long. "It was chaotic and it doesn't seem to have been done in bad faith because several security guards also died," he told the AP.
Police Maj. Bastianello told the AP by telephone the death toll was likely made worse because the nightclub appeared to have just one exit through which patrons could exit.
A security guard told the newspaper Diaro de Santa Maria that the club was filled to capacity, with 1,000 to 2,000 people inside.
Meanwhile, people outside tried to break through walls to get in to save those trapped inside.
Michele Pereira told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage when members of the band lit some sort of flare.
"The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward," she said. "At that point, the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak, but in a matter of seconds it spread."
Guitarist Rodrigo Martins told Radio Gaucha that the band, Gurizada Fandangueira, started playing at 2:15 a.m. "and we had played around five songs when I looked up and noticed the roof was burning."
"It might have happened because of the Sputnik, the machine we use to create a luminous effect with sparks. It's harmless, we never had any trouble with it," he said. "When the fire started, a guard passed us a fire extinguisher, the singer tried to use it but it wasn't working."
He confirmed that accordion player Danilo Jacques, 28, died, while the five other members made it out safely.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was attending a summit with European Union leaders and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Chile, cut her trip short and returned home to Brazil Sunday.
"We will use all possible resources, not only to recover the bodies but to give support to all the families at this time," she said.
Santa Maria is home to a number of colleges and universities, including Federal University of Santa Maria, Methodist University of Santa Maria and Franciscan University Center.
The nightclub was a popular spot for many of the college students in Santa Maria. Many of the victims were younger than 20, according to investigators and police.
Santa Maria Mayor Cezar Schirmer declared a 30-day mourning period after one of the deadliest nightclub fires in the past decade.
In 2000, 309 people were killed in a fire at club in Luoyang, China.
In 2004, 194 people died at nightclub in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
A 2003 nightclub fire killed 100 people in Rhode Island after a rock band used pyrotechnics that ignited foam soundproofing that lined the walls and ceilings of the venue.
Dave Kane's son, Nick O'Neil, was the youngest victim of the Rhode Island fire.
"We don't think tragedy will come to our door," Kane told ABC News Radio. "We think that mass murderers or killings or accidents or fires happen someplace else and that's terribly wrong."