On 30th December 2004, a popular band called Callejeros was playing in República Cromañón – a nightclub in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Once. The place was packed with fans, but at 10.45pm, before the band had even finished their first song, a fire broke out, cutting the power.
The true horror of the night did not emerge immediately, and the initial facts were stark in themselves: 194 dead, 714 injured.
Within a week of the tragedy, a group of six parents formed ‘Que No Se Repita’ (it must never happen again), an organisation that met weekly to support one another in their shared loss. Under the leadership of José Iglesias, a lawyer who had lost his 19-year-old son – Pedro – in the fire, the group started to ask questions, and demand answers.
How could such a high proportion of teenagers be killed and injured in a place with a legal capacity of 1,031? Why did it take so long to evacuate the building? Why did it take the emergency services over an hour to arrive on the scene? When the emergency services did arrive, why were the wounded not classified, as is standard triage? Why did it take over six hours for relatives to be told which hospital their loved ones had been sent to, or even if they were alive? Why was Chacarita Cemetery’s cold room only filled to half its capacity, leaving dead bodies to be lined up on the floor of hospital morgues without refrigeration?
As Que No Se Repita started digging around for answers, they uncovered a network of corruption and bribery that went to the highest levels of the government.
The organisation found out that Callejeros had sold 3,500 tickets to their gig, which was over triple the legal capacity of Cromañón. The police were paid $10 per ticket sold over the capacity, to ensure that the club would be left alone on the night. In fact, with invitees and the band’s regular entourage, some claim the true number of people in Cromañón that night was nearer 6,000.
The nightclub had not had a safety inspection since 2003, yet all of the paperwork was in order, indicating to some critics that the fire department had been bought off by the owner. There had been an order that the place should not be inspected, an order that seemed to come directly from the Buenos Aires city government. This pointed to the fact that mayor, Aníbal Ibarra, could have been complicit in – or at least aware of – the order. This suspicion can be given further weight when taken in light of the fact that Ibarra and the nightclub owner, Omar Chabán, were involved in other business together.
In fact, Chabán previously owned a club called Cemento in the 1980s, which was eventually closed by the government for its notorious health and safety record. However, when the government was looking into the possible closure, Ibarra, then a city councillor, voted against such action being taken.
So what were the safety problems in Cromañón?
One of the fire exits was not a legal exit. Yet had it been opened, it may well have reduced the number of deaths. However, it was locked with wires and a padlock. The soundproofing of the club was also against the legal requirements. To cut costs, it was not fireproof. The emergency exits that did exist were not wide enough, and didn’t have panic bars to allow them to open both ways. There was a ventilation system, but that night it was not switched on.
Christina Berasconi, who lost her son Nico Landoni, 22, in the fire, was one of the first on the scene after a phone call from her niece. She arrived at around 11.10pm to find there were still no emergency services on the scene, just two police vans which had cut off the road. As she got closer to Cromañón she had an even bigger surprise. She recalls: “It was the kids themselves who were going back into the building to get people out. Not even their friends. Just anyone. It was also the kids who were giving mouth-to-mouth to the unconscious on the street, inhaling the toxic fumes twice over.”
According to Berasconi, the first ambulances didn’t arrive until 12.30am on 31st December, almost two hours after the fire had begun. A few minutes later the emergency coordination team arrived, and finally things began to get more organised, although many of the ambulances showed up with insufficient oxygen, forcing victims to share masks.
Soon after, television cameras started arriving, and an order came to clear the street – perhaps out of fear and embarrassment that the true extent of the emergency services’ failure to cope would be broadcast.
Walking wounded, those dying and the dead were piled into the same ambulances, with no triage occurring beforehand to classify the seriousness or extent of the injuries of the victims.
At the hospitals things were not much better: the services of two hospitals collapsed under the weight of the casualties being brought in. One family found the ‘body’ of their daughter in the line waiting to go to the morgue, but upon taking her pulse realised she was still alive. Incredulous, they removed her from the scene and got her the emergency treatment that saved her life.
In the aftermath of the tragedy there was a media frenzy, both speaking out for, and against, the victims. Rumours emerged of a nursery in the ladies’ toilets – something that was later disproved, but remains a myth believed by many. In fact, the men’s toilets were out of order, and with the added traffic to the ladies’, there would have been little room for a nursery. Children did die in Cromañón, but they were the children of the staff who were working that night.
As Que No Se Repita dug deeper, the circle of corruption only seemed to grow wider. Court cases began; Chabán, the owner of the club, was put on trial, jailed, released and then imprisoned a second time. Ibarra was removed as the head of city government. Trials were brought against police chiefs and fire inspection officers, and many heads rolled. People marched on Plaza de Mayo for the victims in protest, and for three months the so-called ‘Cromañón Effect’ seemed to be making a difference. Nightclubs that were fire hazards were denounced to the authorities, and hundreds of bars and clubs were closed. Relatives felt that perhaps their loss would not be in vain.
But two years on, has anything really changed?
Just two months ago Pérfil newspaper ran a report on ‘Seven New Cromañóns’ – places journalists had discovered which didn’t comply with strict post-Cromañón fire regulations, but that were nonetheless full of party-goers.
According to Iglesias, the head of Que No Se Repita, the public has already forgotten. And if they don’t demand changes they won’t happen, and something similar will happen again. Societal behaviour needs to be changed, but it is hard, he says, as the public has already forgotten.
Which brings into question whose responsibility it is to make the changes happen. The judiciary’s? Well, the legal route does not always bring about justice, as proven by last month’s verdict in the Paraguayan supermarket fire case. The fire, in which 369 people died, preceded Cromañón by five months and has shocking similarities. The owners of the supermarket, a father and son, ordered the exits be locked for fear of looting, leaving the people inside to die in the inferno. Yet they were acquitted of murder, and the verdict incensed the victim’s relatives, causing riots in the Paraguayan capital, Asunción
Perhaps the law can not always be trusted then. How about the government? Well, as Que No Se Repita discovered, the government can be corrupt and is not always trustworthy either.
So maybe the responsibility lies on the shoulders of society itself.
The idea of ‘citizenship’ and ‘responsibility’ as a citizen seems to have slowly eroded in many parts of the world as society has become more individualistic, and Argentina is no exception. Being a citizen awards the individual certain rights, but it also thrusts certain responsibilities; being a citizen demands a level of public social responsibility.
However, when indifference reigns, what happens? Lessons can always be learnt, but you need people who are willing to learn them. The families of 194 victims fighting against the apparent apathy of 39m citizens is an uphill struggle if ever there was one. But maybe that’s being overly harsh. It’s not that people are necessarily apathetic, it’s just they have other priorities.
Unless you are directly involved, how much can you really care? Going to see your favourite band live, regardless of the fire hazards, is probably going to override your memory of the victims you never knew who died a couple of years ago. In fact, even after everything you’ve just read, the excitement at seeing said band up close and personal would help you forget any questionable safety issues.
So what can be done? Well, nothing unless the public wants it. So it will happen again? Almost certainly. Only next time there will be a lot more pain, and even more anger.
As José Iglesias says, it was society’s indifference of what happened in 1993 at a nightclub in Olivos, called Kheyvis, in which 17 people died in a fire, which allowed Cromañón to occur.
He adds: “Ghandi said that more than the actions of the wicked, the indifference of the good horrified him. My son died, in part, because of my indifference to Kheyvis – I certainly formed part of the ‘good’ Ghandi talks of. I wish it had never been this way. But it must never happen again.”
For more information visit www.quenoserepita.com.ar