A deadly blaze swept through a nightclub in southern Brazil on January 27, killing over 230 people attending a university party in Santa Maria. The majority of the victims in the packed Kiss nightclub, most under the age of 20, died from smoke inhalation. “All I can say at the moment is that my feelings are of deep sorrow,” said Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff after cutting short a trip to Chile in order to visit survivors. Santa Maria Mayor Cezar Schirmer declared a 30-day mourning period for the victims.
The Santa Maria fire is already raising concerns about lax security standards — notably about the use of fireworks — an expired operating license, overcrowding, and poorly maintained emergency equipment. Police investigators believe the fire was sparked by the pyrotechnics used on stage during a musical performance. According to witnesses, the club’s fire extinguisher malfunctioned and only one working exit was available. Over fifty bodies were found in the venue’s bathrooms, which party goers blinded by toxic smoke presumably thought were exits. 80 survivors remain in serious condition.
These substandard conditions, which are not unique to the Santa Maria club, are leading some to doubt the soundness of Brazil’s infrastructure as a whole and to question whether the country can handle its hosting duties for two upcoming sporting events: the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Brazilian journalist Igor Gielow remarked that despite efforts to prove Brazil’s readiness, “reality showed its face at the nightclub Kiss.” And while Sunday’s tragic blaze is reminiscent of similar catastrophes in Rhode Island in 2003, Argentina in 2004 and Russia in 2009, it will undoubtedly draw additional scrutiny to Brazil’s capacity to adequately, and safely, host the world’s two largest sporting events.
With tens of thousands of tourists expected to attend the events, Brazilian authorities can ill afford mounting questions about the country’s safety record. Even before the Santa Maria fire, officials were scrambling to fix a number of safety, security and logistical shortfalls, including a shortage of hotel rooms, lackluster public transit, chronic traffic snarls and security problems in the crime-ridden neighborhoods that will soon house new Olympic venues. Rampant corruption and kickbacks form yet another challenge facing event planners: “Everything [here] is a pretext for corruption,” says Gil Castello Branco, secretary-general of local NGO Contas Abertas.
While past concerns about Brazilian preparedness have prompted proactive, media-friendly campaigns (notably makeovers of Rio’s ‘love hotels’ to address the city’s bed shortages), this latest tragedy may prove far harder to smooth over. The fire has already, it seems, dampened enthusiasm for the events: a ceremony marking 500 days to the World Cup was cancelled in its aftermath.
With $200 billion worth of infrastructure spending at stake (not to mention its reputation as the first Latin American country to host the Olympic summer games), Brazil will have to prove not only its capacity to handle the Santa Maria tragedy, but its plans to improve safety standards countrywide. And this time, IOC and World Cup officials won’t be the only ones watching closely: sports fans worldwide will be weighing the high costs of attending against (not unjustified) fears for their physical safety. What if they held an Olympics, in other words, and nobody came?