What NYC Nightlife Can Learn From The Brazil Nightclub Tragedy

A fire in the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil has claimed 230 lives. Apparently, it was 2:15am Sunday morning when a band employed a pyrotechnic flare to excite the crowd, which lit up the ceiling’s acoustic panels. This has happened before. In Rhode Island back in February 2003, a band using pyrotechnics set acoustic materials on fire and 100 people lost their lives. According to reports, the club was engulfed in flames in approximately five and a half minutes. One of the owners was sentenced to four years in jail for 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. In 2009, fire claimed 309 patrons at a club in Luoyang, China. In 2004, 194 people died in a club in Buenos Aires. In March 1990, 87 people died at the Happy Land Disco, an unlicensed social club in the Bronx.  I was in a fire in a nightclub back in 1979. I remember it well. It scarred me for life. It happened so fast. They always say "it happened so fast.”

Tragedies like these are preventable. The laws, the regulations, the technology exist, but forces and players seem to always try to circumvent them. There are 230 families mourning in Brazil this morning. Their emotions will soon swing to anger as they realize that greed and negligence by the people tasked and required to prevent such a thing resulted in death. The Brazilian police have detained three owner/management types and, at this writing, were looking for a 4th. There will be finger pointing and investigations but none of this will bring anybody back. The only thing to hope for is that operators will learn the great lesson that they must make public safety a priority above all else.

Reports say there was only one exit working and 2,000 patrons. Reports say the fire extinguishers were not working. Reports say that security guards actually blocked patrons from leaving. It is common in Brazil for patrons to settle their tabs at the end of a night and the bright boys in security wanted cash from the fleeing customers. As the bodies laid in the makeshift morgue, cell phones rang from corpses. Desperate families were looking for the lost.

All around town there are accidents waiting to happen as some operators ignore the codes. Aisles are blocked by extra tables. After the inspections, materials are put up that are not inherently fire resistant or are not treated with fire-retardant chemicals. Acoustic tiles are put up to ease the burden for neighbors who want to sleep. Few look at the specs for fire resistance. All over town, curtains block exits. All over town, violations are issued. The fire department does its best. The building department demands exit strategies. Employees are trained. Sprinklers and costly fire suppression systems make the public feel secure. Exits are clearly marked and rarely blocked. However, political pressures have recently weakened the system.

All over town, bars and lounges have opted to allow dancing, as enforcement of cabaret laws has been lax. The so-called “dancing police” were called off by the mayor in 2004. “The city should not be in the business of deciding what goes on, whether there is dancing or not dancing.” … “We have dance police. This is craziness.” The dancing laws, the cabaret laws, go back to 1926.  They are archaic. They are currently largely ignored.

This is not a good thing in light of the Brazil fire and others like it. A patron who is dancing or watching a band is less aware of his surroundings than someone sitting at a bar having a cocktail. In the case of the Kiss fire and the Rhode Island fire, reports say that patrons were unaware of the flames until it was a full-blown maelstrom. Most patrons died from thick smoke as they tried to find an exit. I’m all for dancing, but stricter requirements on sprinkler systems and fire suppression systems are called for. Exits must be marked and not blocked, and materials need to be flame-retardent. Dancing should be everywhere, but with proper precautions. 

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