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Brazil: Nightclub owners arrested, allegedly tampering with evidence in Brazil's deadly fire


RIO DE JANEIRO, (Xinhua): Brazilian police Monday arrested the Kiss nightclub owners after a fire had killed 231 people, saying they were suspected of tampering with evidence of their negligence.

Witness said the two owners, after the fire erupted, ordered employees to hide money from cashiers. The amount of money in cashiers is seen as an indirect evidence for the police to confirm the actual number of people on the spot.

The designed capacity of the nightclub is 1,000 people, but firefighters and survivors said the actual number might reach 1,500 or even 2,000.

The fire broke out at around 2:30 a.m. (0430 GMT) Sunday in Santa Maria, a college town in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. A band member performing on the stage lit a firework, raising it over his head and setting the ceiling on fire.

The club co-owner Elissandro Sphor denied witness accounts that he had ordered security guards to block the only exit, which added difficulty to evacuation.

Bouncers were trying to stop the desperate crowd from leaving the club because many of the people had not paid the bills, witnesses said.

Survivors also blamed Sphor for removing a computer with security camera footage. However, he said the equipment broke several months ago.

The second owner Mauro Hoffmann turned himself in on Monday afternoon.

In addition, fire extinguishers in the club didn't work and the emergency lights were off, survivors told reporters.

The smoke and darkness caused people to get lost and over 100 people mistook the bathroom doors for the exit and died of asphyxiation in the confined place, local police said.

Marcelo de Jesus dos Santos and Luciano Bonila, both members of the band Gurizada Fandangueira, were also detained.

The temporary arrest warrants, valid for five days and may be extended for five more, are commonly used in the Latin American country to prevent suspects from tampering with evidence, influencing witnesses or trying to escape after an accident happens.

Joel Oliveira Dutra, a district attorney working on the case, said the accused could be charged with manslaughter. However, if their act of negligence is proved, they can be tried for murder.

The band's accordionist Danilo Jaques died in the fire, which spread quickly after sparks from the flares ignited the highly-flammable sound-proofing foam lining the ceiling.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement late Sunday, regretting the loss of human lives, and expressing his condolences for the families and friends of the victims, as well as the Brazilian people and government.

"The Secretary-General was saddened to learn of the tragic fire that occurred at a nightclub in the city of Santa Maria," the statement said. "He was especially moved by news of the very large number of young people, including university students, who have reportedly perished as a result of the fire."

Most of the dead were college students. They gathered at the nightclub for a freshmen party organized by agronomy majors of the Federal University of Santa Maria.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cut short her trip abroad to oversee emergency operations in the aftermath of the fire. Rousseff reminded mayors from all over the country on Monday of the responsibilities of government officials with the population.

"The pain I have witnessed is indescribable. I talk about this pain to recall the responsibility that all of us from the Executive have with the population. We have the duty to ensure that this will never happen again," she said.

Rousseff lived several years in Rio Grande do Sul state and started her career in public office there.

Health Minister Alexandre Padilha said skin banks all over Brazil will supply skin grafts for those with serious burns. If needed, skin banks in neighboring Peru, Uruguay and Argentina will give their hands.

A total of 121 people, most of whom are suffering from smoke inhalation, remain hospitalized in Santa Maria and nearby towns. At least another 39 have been transferred to a burn center at the state capital of Porto Alegre.

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