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The Santa Maria disco fire is now officially the worst disaster in Brazil for half a century. But it would be wrong to interpret the tragedy in which 233 people died as just one more example of incompetence.

The mistakes made at the Kiss nightclub are disgustingly common and have been made repeatedly the world over. This list of the 10 deadliest modern nightclub fires includes several from the US, as well as from France and Argentina.

I’ve written and broadcast a lot recently about Brazil’s culture of impunity and how the mensalao trial indicates that this could be ending. (Some of Brazil’s best-known and most powerful politicians were last year found guilt of political corruption and they face considerable jail time.)

What happens in Santa Maria will give us a clear signal as to whether that culture of impunity really is coming to an end.

Many mistakes were made and many questions must be asked.

  •  – Were there enough emergency exits?
  •  – Were they big enough?
  •  – Were staff trained in evacuation and crowd management?
  •  – Why was the band allowed to use fireworks in an enclosed space?
  •  – Why was cheap and flammable acoustic foam used on the roof?
  •  – Why were the windows barred?
  •  – Did the club have the proper safety and fire certificates?
  •  – If they didn’t, who signed the papers that allowed the place to keep opening?

The issue now is addressing those questions and bringing those responsible to justice.

Brazil has made huge strides in recent years but only if those responsible for the deaths are brought to justice can it maintain that progress. Anything else would be a massive travesty and a slap in the face to the families of those who died.

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