After Massive Fire, Some Brazilians Blame a Nation's Sense of Fatalism

4798First there was the shock over the chaotic nightclub fire here that killed more than 230 people, many of them promising university students. Then there was the grief as families began burying their dead.

A woman outside the club in Santa Maria where a fire killed more than 230 people on Sunday.
Now the soul-searching has begun, as Brazilians here and abroad ask how such a tragedy could have occurred in the first place.

"This is the most senseless thing I can imagine," said José Joel Canto, 64, a retired railroad worker whose daughter, Natana, a 21-year-old law student, died in the blaze early Sunday morning. "One minute my daughter is dancing, having some fun with friends -- the next minute they are dead. I simply cannot comprehend it."

Nor can many others in this country, setting off a debate across Brazilian society about how -- or even if -- the nation can prevent such a disaster from happening again.

"In a few weeks we will forget our dead, perhaps because we'll be crying over other dead as well, victims of tragedies which we know will occur," Sérgio Abranches, a sociologist in Rio de Janeiro, said in a scathing essay about the nightclub fire and the sense of fatalism with which Brazilians often react to such preventable disasters.

Of course, Brazil is far from the only country forced to confront such issues. Just in the last decade, lethal nightclub fires have broken out in Argentina, Russia and the United States. Yet the blaze here has stirred frustrations that the protections for human life that exist on paper are not vigorously enforced, even as Brazil wins plaudits for its vibrant democracy and economic might.

History has something to do with it. Large tragedies that could have been prevented, or at least alleviated to a large degree, have occurred for decades, occupying a painful place in the national consciousness.

In 2011, floods and landslides struck hillside communities precariously built in the state of Rio de Janeiro, leaving more than 600 people dead. In 1989, a boat of partygoers capsized near Rio, killing more than 50 people. And in 1961, a fire at a circus in the city of Niterói killed more than 500 people.

Then there are the smaller tragedies that barely register abroad but are all too common in Brazil. Bus crashes leave dozens of passengers dead. Office buildings collapse. The homicide rate, while lower in large cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro than it was a decade ago, remains higher nationwide than in Mexico, which is in the grip of a war against drug-trafficking organizations.

In another caustic assessment of the nightclub fire, the newspaper O Globo said in an editorial on Tuesday that an array of factors, involving "administrative ineptitude, corruption, omission of public authorities and conformity of the common citizen," contributes to a loss of life in Brazil that is at once alarming and banal.

"The tragedy in Santa Maria imposes on society a reflection about a national culture of leniency," O Globo said, singling out traffic deaths on Brazil's roads during national holidays as another example of senseless tragedy in which individual responsibility plays a part.

Source: The New York Times | SIMON ROMERO
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