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Venezuela club fire kills 47

Caracas (Venezuela), Dec. 1 (Reuters): A fire ripped through a packed basement nightclub in downtown Caracas early today, killing 47 people, most of them suffocated by smoke in what was one of the deadliest blazes in Venezuela’s recent history.

Witnesses described scenes of panic as several hundred revellers stampeded for the exit trying to escape choking clouds of toxic smoke which filled the downstairs Goajira bar and nightclub in Caracas’ Baralt Avenue.

Eight people were taken to hospital with burns and around 20 were treated for the effects of smoke. “They were climbing all over each other to get out. The flames were amazing. They were carrying out bodies all night,” Rafael Chacon, a 19-year-old student who lives opposite the club, said.

The fire occurred a day before political opponents of President Hugo Chavez were set to stage a general strike to pressure the leftist leader to hold an early referendum on his rule in the world’s number five oil exporter.

“Unfortunately, we have 47 victims dead,” Caracas fire chief Rodolfo Briceno said. Of those who died, 32 were men and 15 women. He said it was too early to say what caused the blaze.

But some reports from witnesses said the fire broke out after a fight between patrons over a woman inside the nightclub, one of dozens located a few blocks from the Miraflores presidential palace in the seedy downtown area. “It was all very quick. I was pulled out, but others were trapped,” said 20-year-old Marilin, who worked at the bar. “This was a hell of a blaze. There was tons of smoke. Whoever was trapped inside got burned. It was a miracle that anyone escaped,” street seller Jairo Silva, who witnessed the blaze, said. “The place was always full on Saturdays,” he added.

Briceno said fire fighters evacuated more than 500 people from nearby buildings, including the Hotel Venezuela which is located above the stricken nightclub. A smoke stain blackened the club entrance and a small part of the hotel facade. “There was a lot of panic,” Briceno said. “When we got here, the fire was burning fiercely and there was a big column of smoke,” he added.

The fire chief said the basement location was old. “Clearly, it did not have all the safety requirements,” he said. He added the blaze could have been caused by a short circuit in old cabling or in the nightclub’s kitchen.

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