SANTA MARIA, Brazil – The young law student sat alone in a pew, clutching a shirt on which she’d written the names of friends she’d lost in a weekend nightclub fire in this Brazilian college town.
It was grubby and wrinkled, as Halana Pinheiro Rubim alternately smoothed it out on her knees, tracing out the names, then clutched it and cried.
“Luiza Alves,” she said, fingering the first name. “She was one of my closest friends. She was a fantastic cook and made the best lasagna. We’d always go to her house to study, then stay to eat.
“Andressa Brissow, and her sister, Louise Brissow. It was Loulou’s birthday. She called all her friends. I should have been there. My name was on the guest list.”
Crying, Rubim ran her hands over other names: Sabrina Mendes, Gilmara Oliveira, Pedro Mogental. “There are others in the hospital. There are so many names.”
Throughout this college town in a prosperous corner of Brazil, residents seemed stunned on Tuesday, unable to digest the sudden tragedy that claimed the lives of 234 young people in a pre-dawn fire Sunday – Santa Maria’s lost generation.
As police pressed on with their investigation into the devastation at the Kiss nightclub, which had no fire alarm or sprinklers and only one exit, family and friends of the victims stepped beyond their pain to demand answers. What had gone wrong? Who had failed the town’s children?
Their grief spilled over Monday night into a march by about 30,000 people who, dressed in white, coursed quietly through town. Every minute or so, a wave of clapping rippled through the river of mourners, starting at one end and running down the length of the street.
By Tuesday, grief had turned to anger. A group of mostly young people gathered in front of the mayor’s office. Chanting “We want justice!” they held up placards bearing the faces of victims. Among them was Douglas Dorneles Medeiros, who lost his girlfriend, Thanise Correa Garcia.
Holding a banner with her photos, he said, “It was murder. These corrupt politicians must be held accountable. … This was not an accident. It was a death foretold.”
Images of desolation abounded. The cars of the young revelers who came to hear a local country band and died inside the gutted club early Sunday haunted its parking lot. In a gym where a mass wake had been held, posters with the victims’ faces lingered, amid wilting lilies and white roses. Some contained messages of farewell to a friend or child; others simply said “Mourning” in large black letters.
There were also pointed calls for accountability. “No to impunity!” read one; “Why do we pay taxes? What are authorities doing?” said another.
“Families want an answer,” said Camila Schreiner, a head of student government at the university’s forestry engineering department. “Next week we go back to classes having lost many of our friends. We need an answer.”
In the town’s largest Catholic church, priests were doing double duty trying to comfort parishioners who waited quietly for their turn to speak privately in the pews or in the confessionals.
“We are on permanent call,” said Father Nelson Luiz Pappis. People come for answers, but “a tragedy such as this one has no explanation.”
What he offered were reminders. “For those who have faith, life doesn’t end. We are in communion with those who have gone,” he said. “And to keep on going, we look for solidarity with those who are here with us.”
At the Federal University of Santa Maria, classrooms should have been bustling with students preparing for final exams. Instead, footsteps echoed Tuesday in the darkened hallways of the college, which lost 113 students, among them aspiring agronomists, veterinarians and forestry engineers.
Agronomy professor Toshio Nishijina threw up his hands in bewilderment as he walked among the deserted classrooms. “This should be full of students. This is always such a festive environment. It is so strange now,” he said.
Some mourners tried to work through their grief by taking refuge in routine. Grasiele Melo Moreira was back at the counter selling jewelry in a small shop just around the corner from the nightclub where her best friend died.
She swallowed back tears as she described Patricia Pazzini Bairro, a friend with whom bonds were as tight as with family. Bairro had been her maid of honor, Moreira said. When Bairro’s son, Gabriel, was born, she asked Moreira to be godmother.
Bairro and her husband, Vandelcork Marques Lara Junior, went into the club about 10 minutes before the fire to pick up her 18-year-old sister, Greicy. The teenager had gotten into college and was celebrating with her boyfriend. All died in the fire.
“Pat always took such good care of her sister,” said Moreira, shaking her head at the senseless of it all. “She wanted to be sure she got home safe.
“Justice won’t bring them back,” she said. “But it can prevent other deaths.”