AT A LOSS: Relatives cry next to a coffin at a gymnasium where bodies were brought for identification in Santa Maria, Brazil, after a nightclub fire killed at least 233. (AP photo)
The owners of the nightclub pledged to cooperate with the investigation
Guitarist Rodrigo Martins was preparing to launch into the sixth song of his band's set when he saw embers fall.
The acoustic foam insulation on the ceiling of the KISS nightclub in the southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria was on fire, and it was beginning to spread.
The hot ash fell onto the stage and dance floor.
In front of him, a sea of people who moments earlier were dancing and singing along to the country-pop sounds of his band Gurizada Fandangueira began to realize something was wrong.
Suddenly, concert-goers were stampeding toward the club's only exit, pushing and shoving each other trying to get out.
Then, according to investigators and witnesses, somebody fell in the narrow, dark hallway that led to the windowless exit.
And then another person fell.
And then another.
Searching for Answers
It was the last weekend of Brazil's summer break for many of the students, and the KISS nightclub was packed early Sunday with young people, many of whom attended one of a number of universities and colleges in Santa Maria.
At least 231 people died and hundreds more were injured in the fire that authorities believe began about 2:30 a.m. Sunday when the band's pyrotechnic show ignited insulation material.
Many apparently died from smoke inhalation. Others were trampled in the rush for the exits.
Of the dead, 101 were students at the Federal University of Santa Maria.
Another 120 remained hospitalized Monday morning, 79 in critical condition, authorities said.
About 2,000 people were inside the club when the fire broke out -- double the maximum capacity of 1,000, said Guido de Melo, a state fire official.
The roof collapsed in several parts of the building, trapping many inside. Firefighters found piles of bodies in the club's bathroom.
It looked, said state lawmaker Valderci Oliveira, "like a war zone."
For others, escaping was complicated by the fact that guards initially stopped people from leaving, said a reporter from CNN affiliate Band News, echoing comments from the state fire official.
"Some guards thought at first that it was a fight, a huge fight that happened inside the club and closed the doors so that the people could not leave without paying their bills from the club," the reporter, Glauber Fernandes, said.
But Rodrigo Moura, a nightclub security guard, said the fire moved fast.
"All of a sudden the fire just took off and was all around us. We tried to tell people to get out," he said.
The owners of the nightclub, meanwhile, pledged to cooperate with the investigation into the fire, according to a statement released by the law firm of Kummel & Kummel.
"We are open to all authorities and inspections," said the statement, obtained by Globo TV.
The club's license had expired in August and had not been renewed, a local fire official told Globo TV.
The owners, however, said the nightclub was properly permitted and had been inspected by the fire marshal.
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Shasta Darlington and Chelsea J. Carter