Today marks 500 days until the kickoff of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It's a moment that normally would bring worldwide attention to the country, also host of the 2016 summer Olympics, as it seeks to secure a spot on the international stage.
Instead, Brazil is in the spotlight for a tragic club fire that took more than 230 lives, many of the victims under the age of 20. The fire was caused by a pyrotechnic display set off by band members late Saturday evening that caused the venue to fill up, within minutes, with a cloud of deadly smoke. Many of the victims were found in the bathrooms, with reports noting they may have mistaken it for an exit or were trying to escape through back windows.
Today FIFA, soccer's governing body, was slated to unveil the official World Cup poster in Brazil, but the event was canceled “in respect for the more than 200 people who died in a tragic incident in Santa Maria, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul,” the group said in a statement.
The deadly fire comes at a time when Brazil is under increased scrutiny for its preparedness to host upcoming mega-events. And negative press is likely to abound, as it has each time something tragic has occurred in Brazil since it found out it was to play host to two back-to-back events.
But maybe the spotlight can inspire widespread accountability in a region that has been plagued by multiple tragedies that are often due to lax safety standards, poor oversight, and overcrowded conditions.
The Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria was not unique in terms of club fires and deadly riots in Latin America.
Just last week, a prison riot in Venezuela left 54 dead, and nearly double that injured. The prison, Uribana, was holding 1,400 prisoners at the time that fighting broke out, according to Bloomberg, but is only designed to hold 850 prisoners. It follows another tragic incident in a jail in Venezuela in August 2012, when fighting left 20 dead, something Human Rights Watch said underscores the rampant overcrowding in Venezuelan prisons.
And tragic events reach beyond South America. A year ago, a fire broke out in a prison in Honduras and killed 350 people. And in June 2009 in Mexico, 49 victims, ages 3 and under were trapped inside a day-care facility in the city of Hermosillo in the northwest of the country.
- A nightclub fire in the US 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.
As is the case in the wake of tragedies anywhere, politicians and safety inspectors have promised to investigate any wrongdoing in Brazil. The club owner and two band members have been arrested, according to CNN. Some reports note security guards may have been blocking some exits. Activists and safety officials repeatedly promise to improve overcrowding in prisons, and corruption that allows venues – from day-care facilities to drug rehabilitation centers to nightclubs – to get away with subpar standards that too often result in fatalities. Could this event push the sentiment that follows events of this sort to action? Will Brazil, which says it's fighting against a culture of impunity as it modernizes and becomes a global player, take a new lead?
Citizens will await impatiently to see justice served. In the meantime, there are precautions that individuals can take on their own, as John Barylick, author of "Killer Show" about the Rhode Island fire, lays out helpfully here.
The advice includes:
• Be observant. Is the concert venue rundown or well-maintained? Does the staff look well-trained?
• As you proceed to your seat, observe how long the process takes. Could you reverse it in a hurry? Do you pass through pinch points? Is furniture in the way?
• Once seated, take note of the nearest exit. (In an emergency, most people try to exit by the door they entered, which is usually not the closest, and is always overcrowded.) Then, share the location of that nearest exit with your entire party. Agree that at the first sign of trouble, you will all proceed to it without delay.
• Once the show begins, remain vigilant. If you think there's a problem, LEAVE IMMEDIATELY. Do not stay to "get your money's worth" despite concerns about safety. Do not remain to locate that jacket or bag you placed somewhere. No concert is worth your life. Better to read about an incident the next day than be counted as one of its statistics.