tuesday, 29 january of 2013

Brazil club fire: idiocy and progress

Santa Maria

Brazil club fire: idiocy and progress

The horrific fire in a nightclub in southern Brazil at the weekend will indeed, as Samantha Pearson wrote on Monday, add to scrutiny on Brazil. For a country climbing the global economic league table and preparing to showcase its progress with the World Cup and the Olympic Games, the list of errors and failures that led to Saturday night's fire make the worst kind of advertisement.

But is it fair to question the running of a country when a lone idiot starts a fire on stage?

Many questions are being asked about the background to Saturday's fire. Local media have reported, for example, that the nightclub was in the process of renewing its operating licence and that its fire permit had expired in August. But you can hardly single out Brazil for being home to dodgy nightclubs.

Similarly, there were reports that security guards initially stopped people fleeing the club because they hadn't paid their bills (it is common practice for visitors to bars and clubs in Brazil to build a tab for payment as they leave). But for however long it took them to discover what was really going on, you could hardly expect them to do otherwise.

Other questions are harder to dismiss. There was only one working exit, apparently poorly signposted. (Many people died trapped in the toilets, either because they mistook them for an exit or because they hoped to use the windows.) The ceiling of the club was lined with sound-proofing that any fire inspector would have identified as dangerously inflammable. A fire extinguisher handed to a band member to deal with the fire in its early stages reportedly failed to function.

The most basic regulations, properly enforced, would have avoided the tragedy and saved the lives of 231 young people. The authorities rightly face tough scrutiny.

Finally, what of the act that was the direct cause of the deaths? There is confusion about what happened. Some reports mention a flare set off by a band member; some mention sparklers; others a device on the stage floor known as a "sputnik" throwing coloured sparks.

Using any pyrotechnic device in a confined public space is illegal in Brazil. And, surely, any idiot, anywhere, knows it is incredibly stupid and dangerous?

Not the idiot who did it in Santa Maria on Saturday. He reportedly said afterwards that it had never caused any problem in the past.

Speaking to the Folha de S.Paulo, Valdir Pignatta da Silva, a fire safety specialist at the University of São Paulo, said this was a cultural issue. Brazilians, he said, had no awareness of the threat of fire – unlike the English, who remember fires going back to the 17th century.

The idea that British nightclubbers are protected by their collective memory of the Great Fire of London doesn't bear much inspection. And Brazilians, so quick both to assert and to question their standing in the world, shouldn't beat themselves up too much over the idiocy of Santa Maria. The tour manager who set off fireworks during a heavy metal show at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island, US, in 2003, causing 100 deaths, behaved no less idiotically.

There are idiots all over the world and it is hard to legislate against them. Until Saturday, Brazil hadn't had a tragedy on this scale for more than half a century. If the horrific events of the weekend result in more stringent application of its regulations, Brazil will have made more progress.

(Published by Financial Times - January 28, 2013)

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