Deadly Smoke, Lone Blocked Exit: 230 Die in Brazil

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (AP) -

Flames raced through a crowded gathering place in southern Brazil early Sunday, killing more than 230 as panicked people gasped for breath in the smoke-filled air, stampeding toward a single exit partially blocked by those already dead. It appeared to be the world’s deadliest such disaster in more than a decade.

Witnesses said a flare or firework lit by band members may have started the blaze in Santa Maria, a university city of about 225,000 people.

“There was so much smoke and fire, it was complete panic, and it took a long time for people to get out, there were so many dead,” survivor Luana Santos Silva told the Globo media network.

The fire spread so fast inside the packed room that firefighters and ambulances could do little to stop it, Silva said.

Police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello said by telephone that the toll had risen to 233 with the death of a hospitalized victim. He had said earlier that the death toll was likely made worse because the arena appeared to have just one exit through which patrons could leave.

Federal Health Minister Alexandre Padhilha told a news conference that most of the 117 people treated in hospitals had been poisoned by gases they inhaled during the fire. Only a few suffered serious burns, he said.

Brazil President Dilma Roussef arrived to visit the injured after cutting short her trip to a Latin American-European summit in Chile.

“It is a tragedy for all of us,” Roussef said.

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.