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Learning the lessons of Santa Maria

The horrific nightclub fire in Brazil's Santa Maria has led to a public outcry - but will it amount to anything?
Last modified: 2 Feb 2013 17:08

In July, 2007 a TAM airlines plane skidded off the runway and exploded in a ball of flame in Sao Paulo's busy Congonhas airport. The accident was the largest aviation disaster in the country's history and killed all 187 on board and 12 people on the ground. The disaster sparked a nationwide outcry to fix Brazil's overcrowded airports.

Today - while there have been no other major commercial airlines accidents inside Brazil since then - the main airports are still stretched to capacity, even amidst ongoing nationwide reforms ahead of the 2014 World Cup. (Even the memorial to the victims of the TAM crash, a modest plaza at the crash site, took five years to open.)

In November 2007, a 15-year-old girl was repeatedly raped over the course of several weeks in a prison cell overcrowded with over two dozen male inmates. The horrifying case was the trip wire that began calls to clean up Brazil's broken prison system and improve human rights conditions for those behind bars.

Today - while there have been no reported cases as disturbing as the one in 2007 - the penitentiary system still ranks as one of the worst in the world.

In January 2011, heavy rains and a sudden series of landslides in the mountains outside Rio de Janeiro killed over 900 people and left more than 30,000 homeless. It was the worst one-day natural disaster in Brazil's history. Most of those killed were living in irregular housing in high flood-prone areas. Afterwards, there were promises to rebuild and relocate survivors to safer housing to prevent it from ever happening again. It became a national discussion.

Today,  recently installed, much-hyped emergency sirens are present to alert those in high risk areas of potential flash flooding. Most of the new homes promised to victims, however, have not been built, and in the same area as the 2011 flooding, many people are still living in the very areas that were washed out.

And then, last Sunday, 236 people (as of this writing) died in a nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil - the worst such incident ever in this country. There are still 124 people in hospitals, over 60 who are listed in critical condition.

Everyone is asking the same question: how do we prevent it from happening again?

It will take another few weeks for the investigators to release their initial report on the cause of the fire, but the document will just cross the T's and dot the I's on what we already know: over crowded nightclub, insufficient emergency exits, dangerous flares used in a building with a foam insulation that easily caught fire and that within seconds gave off deadly, toxic fumes.

The appalling tragedy has sparked another outcry for improved enforcement of fire codes in public venues.

This week alone, more than 30 clubs have been shuttered for non-compliance with fire code in the city of Manaus, and another 16 closed in Brasilia. In Rio de Janeiro state, more than 100 venues have been served with notices to get up to standards.

That, however, is the easy part.

A fundamental, long-term, re-evaluation and follow-through of safety in public spaces is more time consuming and difficult.

It's important to remember that calls for action immediately following tragedy, followed by lack of follow-through after the heartbreak subsides, is not just something that happens in Brazil. It happens every where. But will this time, after this tragedy, be different?

As I was leaving Santa Maria, my answer was: yes.

Something profoundly different occurred in Santa Maria. First, it was so preventable. Second, the sheer number of people killed was so high. Third, it happened in a state where things generally are considered to work well. This did not happen in Brazil's lawless, wild west. Santa Maria is a prosperous college and military town. That fact was not lost on many Brazilians.

Fourth, and most significant, is the fact that most of those killed were young people between 18 and 30 years old. It's struck deep in the Brazilian consciousness in a way that I have not seen in other tragedies. A wide cross-section of people could directly relate to Santa Maria.

It was exemplified in President Dilma Rousseff. I have seen her up-close during other tragedies, and she was always sombre, yet her typical professionally businesslike self.

This time, however, she cracked. She was not Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil. She was Dilma Rousseff, a Brazilian Mother. But there’s something else going on here too. This country has gone through a massive transformation in the past decade. Brazil is now full of self-esteem, possibilities, promise, and internationalism. It's  a country very much looking forward, and not back – none more so than the youth. 

Most of those young people who died in the nightclub in Santa Maria had no other memory of their country than this New Brazil. They were unencumbered by the setbacks of past decades.

Their posts and photos on Facebook, Twitter and Orkut were the first pages of their scrapbook of life - and they represented their innocence and promise in this new Brazil, and not the Brazil of the 1960s or 70s or even 80s.

But here's the problem: they died because of deep-seated faults and a societal acceptance of a lack of security that date back decades:Fudge the rules, pack 'em in, make a call to get a signature to get the license, and don’t let them out until they pay the tab.

Based on early reports of what we know about what happened in that nightclub, those were the rules that the Santa Maria nightclub owners appeared to be playing by. They appear to be the rules many other establishments in Brazil are playing by. And it was socially accepted to look away.

All fine when the music is loud and the beer cold, but not so much when the place goes up in smoke and flames.

As I left Santa Maria, I felt the cruel deaths in Santa Maria would stick in the collective memory in Brazil. I still do. 

But then I arrived back home in Sao Paulo. Hungry and exhausted, I went to one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants for a very late night dinner. As usual, the place was packed with over 100 people at several dozen tables all tightly wedged together. With a new awareness, I casually checked the two emergency exits. Both exits that I saw were sealed shut, with tables in front of them. There was only one door in and out: the front door.

If there were fire extinguishers in the place, I didn't see them, nor would I know where to find them if I needed them. 

It didn't matter, though. People were loudly laughing and chatting away while enjoying dinner. There was not a worry in the world.

Five days after the Santa Maria nightclub fire, it felt like Santa Maria never happened.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter at @elizondogabriel