On 19th August four and a half years of waiting for justice ended as one of the most eagerly awaited verdicts in recent years was read out. The trial of those deemed responsible for the 2004 Cromañón fire drew to an end, with sentences handed down. For relatives of the nearly 200 people who died in the inferno, some sort of closure was finally found.
The 30th December 2004 is a well-known date in Argentine history. It was the night when a tragedy of unimaginable dimensions took place in the nightclub República Cromañón. That night, the old and overcrowded venue caught fire and a chain of corruption and negligence turned it into an inferno in which 194 people died and more than a thousand were injured.
Due to the intentional overselling of tickets to see a gig by the band ‘Callejeros’, the nightclub’s legal capacity of 1,031 was overrun. While the exact number of distributed tickets is unknown, different media reported from 3-6,000 fans were in attendance.
Fire hazard and security inspections were overdue and four of the six doors out of the club, some of them emergency exits, were locked so that “people would not enter without paying”, according to the former mayor Aníbal Ibarra. The police was familiar with the illegal scheme and therefore stayed away from the huge event; as well as the ambulance crews, who were supposed to be present.
The band hadn’t finished its first song, when the plastic decoration in the ceiling caught alight and leapt to the flammable sound proofing. Fire was raining down and an electrical outage followed. As a consequence of the broken ventilation, the poisonous gases formed a thick cloud. The location filled up with toxic smoke, the inhalation of which lead to the majority of the deaths. People who had escaped the inferno went back in to save the injured, further damaging their lungs. Survivors suffer from chronic conditions and five of them even committed suicide.
Reporters arrived at the scene with many dying people in front of the club and casualties were dispersed to random hospitals. With up to ten people in one ambulance, authorities tried to hide the scale of the incident from the media. The medical system was overloaded and parents spent up to 48 hours trying to located their children in the capital’s hospitals, not knowing whether they were dead or alive.
The Buenos Aires administration was questioned rigorously for its collaboration with the clubowner Omar Chabán and his neglectful handling of security restrictions. After mayor Aníbal Ibarra had already been suspended and removed from office in 2006, the investigations and trial drew to an end, with the verdicts and sentences delivered on Wednesday, 19th August.
Chabán was the main culprit and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. After a year-long trial the court found him responsible for the fire. In addition, he was convicted for bribery.
Diego Argañaraz, the manager of Callejeros and the commissioner Carlos Díaz were sentenced to 18 years each for culpability of the fire and bribery. In addition, the police officer received a lifetime occupational ban from public office.
Several others involved received jail sentences, fines and bans from their professions.
The members of the band Callajeros were acquitted. While the musicians had to leave the court of justice because of being insulted by attendant family members, most young fans celebrated the verdict of not guilty in front of the building. Furious with their behaviour, mourners clashed with fans. Various injuries were sustained and ambulances were called in.
Prevention Through Remembrance
The sentencing in the Cromañon case should “bring peace through conviction” to the bereaved, according to the final words of the judge. Families and friends though, see another use in the sentences. With signs and placards and a monthly demonstration, they use the memory of the incident to combat the misfeasance of corruption that made this accident possible. Even though public places were closed afterwards because of safety concerns people continue to ask how many other potential hazards go unchecked in the city.
The jail terms are maybe not complete justice for the survivors and bereaved, but they remind Argentina’s citizens that the loss cannot be replaced and people should do everything they can to prevent a similar incident occurring again.