175 die in Argentinian 'death trap' club fire
Uki Goni in Buenos Aires and agencies
Saturday January 1, 2005
At least 175 people, most of them teenagers, were killed and more than 700 injured when a fire raged through a packed nightclub in Buenos Aires yesterday.
Officials said the club's only two fire exits had been tied shut with wire - apparently to stop people getting into a rock concert without paying - turning the venue into a "death trap".
The blaze began when someone in the audience let off a flare that had been smuggled into the club - setting fire to an overhead cloth-and-foam canopy.
Witnesses spoke of chaos as many of the 2,200 fans inside, including some young children, stampeded towards the blocked exit doors.
"The fire spread in a minute and we were a mountain of people trying to escape," said one survivor, Ariel Monges, 25, who lost a friend and a cousin in the blaze and was searching for another friend.
Most of the victims died from smoke inhalation. Hospital lists showed they were mainly in their teens and 20s, but rescue workers found at least a dozen children in the club. Some fans had brought their babies, including an 11-month-old, to a makeshift nursery in the women's lavatories, said witnesses.
A car park next to the Republica Cromagnon club was turned into an improvised morgue, where dozens of bodies, their faces covered with T-shirts, were lined up by rescue workers in the early hours of yesterday.
"Only two exits were open. The others were tied up with wire," Anibal Fernandez, Argentina's interior minister, told reporters. "These young people were doomed in a death trap."
Anibal Ibarra, the mayor of Buenos Aires, said: "The place had two fire exits, but our reports tell us they were shut so tight that they had to be prised open by the firemen." The emergency exits appeared to have been shut "so that people wouldn't enter without paying".
Other reports said one of the exit doors burst open from the pressure of hundreds of people crushing against it, allowing some to escape. As they fled, scores of shoes were left strewn on the ground outside. Witnesses said the blaze was set off by a flare lit by fans of the popular local rock band, Los Callejeros, who were performing at the club.
"People were pushing and jumping over each other trying to get out," said one concert-goer, José Maria Godoy. "It was like a human wave. As people fell down, running for the door, others just simply ran over them or pushed them down."
The scene outside the club was one of total mayhem, with the injured crying desperately over the bodies of friends as they waited for ambulances. "It's like an open-air hospital on the street," said one survivor as doctors fought to save people carried out of the club.
Thousands of parents and other relatives crowded the streets around the Ramos Mejia hospital in Buenos Aires, demanding information about the dead and injured.
Parents also gathered outside the Buenos Aires city morgue yesterday, fearing that their children might be among the dead.
"I want to go and identify all the corpses, wherever they are. I need to know where my granddaughter is," sobbed one woman, searching for a 19-year-old, Marianela Rojas.
A young man looking for his 11-year-old nephew sought to justify the presence of young children at the concert, saying the performing group was a "family band".
Officials said identifying victims was made harder by the fact that ID papers were strewn on the club's floor by those fighting to get out.
The club's owner, Omar Chaban, who was reported to have left moments before the blaze began, could not be located by police yesterday. Newspapers in Buenos Aires rated the death toll as the sixth highest for a fire in a public place anywhere in recent years, after a fire last August at a supermarket in Asuncion, Paraguay, which left 464 dead, and other deadly blazes in Peru and China.
One young survivor said one of the producers of Thursday night's concert had pleaded with members of the audience not to light fireworks within the hall, warning them that "this could become a massacre".
This is very similar to the supermarket fire in Asuncion, Paraguay
This is dreadfull, right on new years eve there