At least 232 people died early yesterday when a fire tore through a nightclub packed with university students in the southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria, police said.
Shocked survivors described a frantic rush to the exits as flames swept through the crowded club in the university town, with scores of young people getting trampled and passing out from smoke inhalation.
Another 131 people were injured, and the death toll from the inferno had climbed rapidly as firefighters pulled bodies from the charred remains of the "Kiss" club, believed to have been packed with hundreds of revelers.
The tragedy appeared to be the deadliest such blaze in more than a decade, since a fire at a shopping center and discotheque in the central Chinese city of Luoyang killed more than 300 people in 2000.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cut short a visit to Chile, where she was attending a European and Latin American summit, to head to Santa Maria and oversee the response to the tragedy.
It was not immediately clear what caused the blaze, but media reports said the fire broke out after 2:00am (0400 GMT) when the nightclub was hosting a university party featuring a rock band using pyrotechnics.
"Everyone was pushing and shoving... The fire started out small, but in a matter of seconds it exploded," Taynne Vendruscolo, one of the survivors, told reporters. "Those who were close to the stage could not get out."
Santa Maria fire chief Guido de Melo said the fire caused widespread panic, and that many revelers were trampled or died from smoke inhalation. All bodies had been removed from the wreckage, he added.
Military police commander Rois Tavares confirmed the new toll of dead and injured, after officials had earlier put the death toll higher, at 245 people; 120 men and 112 women.
The tragedy recalled a 2003 blaze in a nightclub in the US state of Rhode Island that killed 100 people and another in Buenos Aires in 2004 that killed some 200, both blamed on faulty safety measures.