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Rhythm Night Club, Brazil fire should prevent future disasters

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Sitting in the Rhythm Night Club Fire museum, Don Gordon, Betty Sago and Monroe Sago talk about the recent fire in a Brazilian night club that killed more than 230 people and how similar it was to the fire that killed 209 people in 1940.

NATCHEZ — Rhythm Night Club Museum owner Monroe Sago received a call from Brazil Monday afternoon. News producers there had noticed similarities between a deadly Sunday morning blaze in their country and Natchez’s most notorious fire.

On April 23, 1940, 209 people died after the Spanish moss hanging from the ceiling caught fire at the Rhythm Night Club. Windows had been boarded shut, and only one exit was available. Because of the crush of the crowd, many were unable to escape the smoke and flames.

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Sago is reflected in the framed picture of the list of names that is on the memorial that sits on the Mississippi River bluff.

At the Kiss nightclub in Brasilia, Brazil early Sunday morning, 230 people died after pyrotechnics from a band performance started a fire. Like the fire that preceded it nearly 73 years ago and a continent away, those inside the club panicked and charged for the only exit, blocking it.

The Brazilian callers were interested in what happened at Rhythm Night Club that night, as well as about what has happened on the site since then, including the opening of the museum three years ago, Sago said.

But the call wasn’t one he relished. Sago said he hoped that the story of the Rhythm Night Club fire would have the infamy to prevent that sort of thing from happening again.

“I weep for the people who lost their life in Brazil,” he said. “It is just a bad tragedy. I can’t understand why somebody would be that careless to have something like that happen again.

“The Rhythm Night Club should have been picture proof that you don’t go in somewhere like that, with only one exit — that was a death trap.”

The Rhythm Night Club fire resulted in new fire codes across the United States and resulted in the building of Natchez’s first fire station, and Sago said he hopes to see similar safety measures arising from the tragedy in Brazil.

Natchez Fire Marshal Aaron Wesley said every nightclub locally now has to pass a fire inspection, but there are safety measures that civilians can look for to ensure their own safety.

One way is to look at the posted notice near the entrance of all nightclubs, which states the maximum allowed occupancy, Wesley said.

Another is to take note of exits ahead of time and to make sure exits are actually accessible. Likewise, Wesley said for every 50 people in a room there should be an additional exit.

“When you first walk in — into a movie theater, a hotel or whatever — you look for your exit,” Wesley said. “If there are 50 or more people in one place, the doors are supposed to open to the outside. If they don’t open to the outside you don’t need to be in there.”

And finally — especially in light of the Rhythm and Kiss nightclub fires — make sure there’s more than one exit, he said.

Sago said the ultimate answer is — in addition to fire code regulations — to educate people about fire safety.

“I would love for people the world over to know never to go into a building with only one way in and out,” he said.

The Rhythm club blaze stands as the second deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.