Television images from the city of about 260,000 people showed black smoke billowing out of the nightclub as shirtless young men who attended a university party there joined firefighters using axes and sledgehammers to pound at the hot-pink exterior walls, trying to reach those trapped inside.
Bodies of the dead and injured were strewn in the street and panicked screams filled the air as medics tried to help. There was little to be done; officials said most of those who died were suffocated by smoke within minutes.
Within hours the community gym was a horror scene, with body after body lined up on the floor, partially covered with black plastic as family members identified kin.
Outside the gym police held up personal objects — a black purse, a blue high-heeled shoe — as people seeking information on loved ones crowded around, hoping not to recognize anything being shown them.
The gathering was a party organized by students from several academic departments from the Federal University of Santa Maria. Such organized university parties are common throughout Brazil.
Survivor Michele Pereira told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage when members of the band lit some sort of flare.
"The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward," she said. "At that point, the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak, but in a matter of seconds it spread."
Guitarist Rodrigo Martins told Radio Gaucha that the band, Gurizada Fandangueira, started playing at 2:15 a.m. "and we had played around five songs when I looked up and noticed the roof was burning."
"It might have happened because of the Sputnik, the machine we use to create a luminous effect with sparks. It's harmless, we never had any trouble with it," he said. "When the fire started, a guard passed us a fire extinguisher, the singer tried to use it but it wasn't working."
He confirmed that accordion player Danilo Jacques, 28, died, while the five other members made it out safely.
Police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello said by telephone that the toll had risen to 233 with the death of a hospitalized victim. He said earlier that the death toll was likely made worse because the nightclub appeared to have just one exit through which patrons could exit.
Federal Health Minister Alexandre Padhilha told a news conference that most of the 117 people treated in hospitals had been poisoned by gases they breathed during the fire. Only a few suffered serious burns, he said.
Most of the dead apparently were asphyxiated, according to Dr. Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a professor at the medical school of the Federal University of Santa Maria who went to the city's Caridade Hospital to help victims.
"Large amounts of toxic smoke quickly filled the room, and I would say that at least 90 percent of the victims died of asphyxiation," Beltrame told the AP.
Sunday's fire appeared to be the worst at a nightclub since December 2000, when a welding accident reportedly set off a fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309.
Similar circumstances led to a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people in the United States. Pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the 1980s rock band Great White set ablaze cheap soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling of a Rhode Island music venue.
Associated Press writers Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and Stan Lehman and Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.
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