Firefighters work to extinguish the blaze Jan. 27, 2013. (Agencia RBS via AFP/Getty Images)
SAO PAULO, Brazil (USA TODAY) - A band member, a promoter and the co-owners of a nightclub were arrested Monday in connection with a weekend fire that killed 231 people.
The website for the local court - Rio Grande do Sul Tribunal - said the arrests were for investigative purposes and have five-day limits. A preliminary investigation indicated that a band's pyrotechnics show ignited the fast-moving blaze. One band member was among the dead.
"It was terrible inside - it was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another," police Inspector Sandro Meinerz said.
Funerals were held Monday for about 50 victims of the fire early Sunday at the club Kiss in Santa Maria, at the southern tip of Brazil. More than 130 survivors remained hospitalized.
Brazilian Civil Defense Minister Humberto Viana told the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo that the nightclub's license for fire inspection expired in August. Police authorities had announced that the business license also expired last year and that the nightclub was in the process of renovations.
Some survivors complained to media outlets that there were no emergency exits, leaving the front door as the only way out.
"It was sheer horror. The emergency exits did not work, and then I lost my friend in the confusion," Matheus Bortolotto, a club patron, told TV Band News. "Then a girl died in my arms. I felt her heart stop beating."
The club was hosting an event for a university, and most of the attendees were students of that school, the Federal University of Santa Maria in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.
People fleeing the fire were briefly delayed by security guards routinely charged with ensuring that bar tabs are paid, police said. Firefighters arriving minutes later were hampered by the pile of bodies blocking the lone exit.
It's common for bar patrons in Brazil to have a running bar tab throughout the night, better known as a comanda, which they pay before leaving. Patrons are allowed to leave once they provide a stamped comanda to the bouncer. Meinerz said some bouncers initially tried to stop fleeing patrons.
"It was chaotic, and it doesn't seem to have been done in bad faith because several security guards also died," Meinerz said.
Capt. Edi Garcia of the military police told Brazilian TV's O Globo that authorities recovered more than 180 bodies from the bathrooms. "I found people with their heads inside the toilet, trying to find oxygen any way they could," he said.
Guitarist Rodrigo Martins said a fire extinguisher used by a band member didn't work. "I felt that something was falling from the roof, and I looked up and I saw the fire was spreading, and I shouted, 'Look, it's catching on fire, man, it's catching fire,'" he said.
Martins said the club was packed and estimated the crowd at about 1,200-1,300 people.
"I thought I was going to die there," he said. "There was nothing I could do, with the fire spreading and people screaming in front."
Santa Maria Mayor Cezar Schirmer declared a 30-day mourning period, and Tarso Genro, the governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, said officials were investigating details of the disaster.
"All of Brazil is sad and mourning the deaths that occurred in the Santa Maria fire," former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told Folha de Sao Paulo. "During this hard moment, we express our sympathy to friends and families of the victims and to the entire population of the city, but especially to the mothers and fathers for these irreparable losses. Our deepest condolences."
Sheena Rossiter, Special for USA TODAY