BRASILIA, Brazil - A blaze raced through a crowded nightclub in southern Brazil early Sunday, killing 232 people as the air filled with deadly smoke and panicked party-goers stampeded toward the exits, police and witnesses said. It appeared to be the world's deadliest nightclub fire in more than a decade.
Witnesses said that a flare or firework lit by band members may have started the fire.
Police Maj. Cleberson Braida told local news media that the 232 bodies were brought for identification to a gymnasium in the city of Santa Maria, at the southern tip of Brazil near the borders with Argentina and Uruguay
Television images showed smoke pouring out of the Kiss nightclub as shirtless, young male partygoers joined firefighters in wielding axes and sledgehammers, pounding at windows and walls to break through to those trapped inside. Teenagers sprinted from the scene desperately trying to find help. Others carried injured and burned friends away in their arms.
"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 TV network.
Silva added that firefighters and ambulances responded quickly after the fire broke out, but that it spread too fast inside the packed club for them to help.
Michele Pereira, another survivor, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage and that the fire broke out after members of the band lit flares.
"The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward. At that point the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak but in a matter of seconds it spread," Pereira said.
Most of the dead apparently suffocated, according to Dr. Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a professor at the medical school of the Federal University of Santa Maria who raced the city's Caridade Hospital to help victims.
He said survivors, police and firefighters told him a flare set by a band member set the ceiling's soundproofing ablaze. "Large amounts of toxic smoke quickly filled the room and I would say that at least 90 percent of the victims died of asphyxiation," Beltrame told The Associated Press by telephone.
"The toxic smoke made people lose their sense of direction so they were unable to find their way to the exit. At least 50 bodies were found inside a bathroom. Apparently they confused the bathroom door with the exit door."
"In the hospital I saw desperate friends and relatives walking and running down the corridors looking for information. It was one of the saddest scenes I have ever witnessed," he added.
Rodrigo Moura, identified by the newspaper Diario de Santa Maria as a security guard at the club, said it was at its maximum capacity of between 1,000 and 2,000, and partygoers were pushing and shoving to escape.
Beltrame also said he was told the club was filled far past its capacity during a party for students at the university's department of agronomy. The event featured a group called Gurizada Fandangueira, which plays a driving mixture of local Brazilian country music styles. It was not immediately clear if the band members were among the victims.
The fire led President Dilma Roussef to cancel a series of meetings at a summit of Latin American and European leaders in Chile's capital of Santiago, and was headed to Santa Maria, according to the Brazilian foreign ministry.
"It is a tragedy for all of us. I am not going to continue in the meeting (in Chile) for very clear reasons," she said.
"Sad Sunday", tweeted Tarso Genro, the governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. He said all possible action was being taken and that he would be in the city later in the day.
Santa Maria is a major university city with a population of around a quarter of a million.
A welding accident reportedly set off a Dec. 25, 2000, fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309.
At least 194 people died at an overcrowded working-class nightclub in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2004. Seven members the band were sentenced to prison for setting off the blaze.
A blaze at the Lame Horse nightclub in Perm, Russia, broke out on Dec. 5, 2009, when an indoor fireworks display ignited a plastic ceiling decorated with branches, killing 152
A nightclub fire in the U.S. state of Rhode Island in 2003 killed 100 people after pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the 1980s rock band Great White set ablaze cheap soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)