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Brazil rethinks its rule-breaking attitude after club fire

Some see an opportunity to create a more civil and safe society after the Kiss nightclub fire that killed 235. A number of rules apparently were ignored there.

January 30, 2013|By Vincent Bevins, Los Angeles Times
  • The nightclub where a fire killed more than 230 people in Santa Maria, Brazil. The blaze began early Sunday during a performance by a band that used flares.
The nightclub where a fire killed more than 230 people in Santa Maria, Brazil.… (Rio Grande do Sul Police )

SANTA MARIA, Brazil — There is a common expression in Brazil that is used, with a wink and a smile, to suggest a way around some bothersome rule or procedure.

In Portuguese, it is "jeitinho," or "jeitinho Brasileiro," which translates literally as "little Brazilian way." It suggests how society has tolerated, even embraced, the routine cutting of corners to make life flow a little more smoothly. One "gives" a jeitinho when one pays a bribe for a driver's license, or employs some creative wiring to hook up free cable TV.

Or skirts the safety rules in a nightclub.

That attitude is undergoing a reevaluation this week, in the days after a horrific club fire killed 235 young people early Sunday.

In public and in private, Brazilians are searching for answers — and lessons — from the tragedy, hoping it can be a catalyst for change. And while no one thinks it could have happened only in Brazil, many are suggesting jettisoning jeitinho in favor of a more civil and safer society.

"We want to serve as an example of what not to do," said Maicon Freitas, 27, sitting with his girlfriend, with whom he escaped the fire at the Kiss nightclub. "I'll never get back the people that I love, but we can hope to make sure this never happens again."

Over the last decade, Brazil has emerged as one of the world's largest economies and a confident new global power set to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Internally, there has been a constant, self-questioning discussion as to whether the country really has emerged from the difficulties of the past.

"If we don't change our mentality, if we don't understand that laws are universal, that there are procedures that have to be followed according to the rules, without jeitinho, tragedies will continue," wrote columnist Antonio Prata on the front page of Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil's most popular newspaper.

The fire at the nightclub in Santa Maria, a college town of 250,000 in southern Brazil, plunged the country into mourning. Many of those killed were university students, the country's future, and the grotesque details of their deaths — the bodies piled up in bathrooms because the victims thought the doors were exits; the people trampled in the panic to flee — have only added to the pathos.

Still, most are aware that there have been strikingly similar fires in nightclubs in other countries, most involving the use of onstage pyrotechnics such as those used at Kiss. Among them was a 2003 fire at a club in Rhode Island, where 100 people died.

"This could have happened anywhere in the world," said Iuri Frohlich, 21, a student standing in a small crowd outside the remains of the nightclub he used to frequent. "But," he added, "there is a general tendency in Brazil to just pass over details. And I'm not sure if, normally, something like this would change that. But there has been such an outpouring of solidarity, and the world has gotten involved, so this might be a real chance."

Reports from witnesses and authorities indicate a number of rules may have been ignored at the Santa Maria club. The crowd was over capacity. The band's onstage fireworks show reportedly involved flares designed for outdoor use. The ceiling caught fire quickly, suggesting fireproof material hadn't been installed. The club had only one exit, which was unmarked. A renovation done on the building had not been approved by the city. There were no fire sprinklers.

After the fire, cities around the country cracked down quickly, and many nightclubs have been closed or were closed voluntarily for inspection.

It is the broader discussion, and the depth of the response, that has surprised some people.

Parties across the country were canceled. The president came to Santa Maria, as did so many foreign reporters that some residents reported hearing English in the streets for the first time.

On Monday night, tens of thousands of people, dressed in white, marched through the center of town, slowly and in silence. Neighbors met in the streets, hugging and crying. Another student march demanded that the responsible parties be brought to justice — not just the two club owners and two members of the band who are in custody, but local officials who failed to enforce the rules.

"It's not one person's fault. It was a bunch of errors committed by many people that led to this," said Patricia Trentin, an 18-year-old student.

Trentin is leaving Santa Maria to spend time with her parents, as are many students here. Classes are suspended, and some students are talking of never coming back. They say they intend to stay away from places that might be unsafe or that are skirting the rules.

Folha de Sao Paulo published a nationwide poll in which most respondents said they would change their behavior as a result of the tragedy, making sure they trusted the places they go.

"We are all the best supervisors of what goes on every day; it's not just officials," said Ogier de Vargas Rosado. His son, Vinicius, and daughter, Jessica, were at the nightclub Sunday night. Both escaped, but Vinicius went back in to rescue others and didn't make it back out. He was 26.

Rosado sees potential not only for a lesson to be learned from the failures at the nightclub, but from the response in the streets.

"Everyone has come together in solidarity like I've never seen," he said. "And at the moment of the crisis, everyone came together to help. If, in the future, we could all act like that, if we could all act like my son and so many others did, the world will be a lot better place."

Bevins is a special correspondent.

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