Inside the club, metal barriers meant to organize the lines of people entering and leaving became traps, corralling desperate patrons within yards of the exit. Bodies piled up against the grates, smothered and broken by the crushing mob.
Rizzi was stuck, unable to move, taking in gulps of smoke, feeling the gaseous mix burn his lungs.
He was within seconds of passing out, he said, when the whole frenzied mass suddenly lurched forward. The gates gave way, and everyone toppled over. Rizzi was lying on top of two or three people, several more heaped on top of him. He stuck out his hands, smacking them against the sidewalk and door. Someone pulled him to safety.
‘‘To get out, I climbed, I pulled people’s hair. I felt other people grabbing me, hitting me in the face,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s hard to describe the horror. But once I was outside, I recovered, and started pulling out the others.’’
Soon, he said, the street was a sea of bodies.
This was the scene 24-year-old Gabriel Barcellos Disconzi found when he arrived about 3:30 a.m., an hour after fire broke out. Wakened by a phone call from friends, the club regular immediately started pulling out bodies as smoke spewed so thick that entering the building was unthinkable.
Using sledgehammers and picks and their bare hands, he and other young men broke down the walls. Born and bred in Santa Maria, the outgoing young lawyer had dozens of friends and acquaintances inside.
‘‘It was all so fast, there was no time for anything, no time for crying over a friend,’’ he said. ‘‘It was dead people over here, living over there. Body after body after body.’’
Both Rizzi and Disconzi were there when they broke into one of the bathrooms and found a tableau of nearly indescribable desperation: It was crammed with bodies, tangled and tossed like dolls, piled as high as Rizzi’s chest. In the darkness and confusion, concert-goers had rushed into the bathroom thinking it was an exit. They died, crushed and airless in the dark.
‘‘I'll never forget the wall of people,’’ Rizzi said.
Disconzi helped load them into a truck. Just the dead jammed into that bathroom filled an entire truck, he said.
By this time, the city was waking up to the dimension of the tragedy unfolding at its heart. Doctors, nurses and psychologists began arriving, giving immediate assistance — checking eyes and respiratory passages, stabilizing the burned, resuscitating those whose hearts had stopped or lungs had failed because of the smoke. The living they loaded into ambulances. The mounting number of dead went into trucks.
At Charity Hospital, the region’s largest, ‘‘it was a war scene,’’ said Dr. Ronald Bossemeyer, the technical director.
‘‘Trying to give care, comfort the living, and keep family members who started to arrive from overwhelming everything — it was madness,’’ he said, choking back tears. ‘‘The wounded, the doctors, people running with saline, with oxygen. We've never seen so many patients.’’
As families waited, nurses and technicians ran back and forth, bringing an earring, a shoe, a wallet, anything that could help identify those still living, Bossemeyer said.
As doctors were at work saving those who could be saved, a group of mothers was calling around to check on one another. Elaine Marques Goncalves woke up to that terrible question: Do you know where your child is?
With a jolt, she realized two of her sons, Gustavo and Deivis, had not come home the night before.
‘‘I knew they'd gone to a club, but I didn’t know which one,’’ she said. Trying to keep calm, she joined the multitude pressing for news outside the hospital.
Hours later, she got some good news: Gustavo had burns on 20 percent of his body and had suffered two heart attacks as his lungs failed to draw oxygen, but he was alive and being flown to the state capital, Porto Alegre, for treatment.
‘‘I had time to put my hands on him and say, ‘My dear, your mother is here with you,'’’ she said. ‘‘He was sedated, but I know he could hear. Then I had to tear myself away and go find my other son.’’
Hours passed as the dead piled up in the city gym. It took an entire day of anguish before she learned what she'd dreaded most: Deivis was dead.
As he lay there among basketball hoops and water coolers, one body among so many, she asked the questions on everyone’s mind.
‘‘How can a club just burn like that? People have to know what happened here,’’ she said. ‘‘It won’t bring back my son, but I have to ask. This nightclub was beyond capacity. The whole world has to know. Why couldn’t they get out?’’
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