Sao Paulo, Brazil (CNN) — A fire swept through a popular nightclub in southern Brazil early Sunday, killing at least 245 people, state media reported, citing police.
The death toll was expected to climb as firefighters continued to pull bodies from the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, said Col. Adilomar Silva, the regional coordinator of civil defense.
Most of those killed appeared to have died of smoke inhalation, Silva said. Hundreds are believed to have been injured, though an exact count was not immediately available.
Many people were trampled in the panic to leave the club, one security guard told CNN affiliate Band News.
The fire started “from out of nowhere” on a stage at the club and quickly spread to the ceiling, witness Jairo Vieira told Band News.
Smoke billowed outside the front of the building as the stench of fire filled the air, said Max Muller, who was riding by on his motorbike when he saw the blaze.
Muller recorded video of a chaotic scene outside the club, which showed emergency crews tending to victims and dazed clubgoers standing in the street. Bodies lay on the ground beside ambulances.
Friends who were inside the club told him that many struggled to find the exits in the dark. Muller, who was not inside the club Sunday morning but has been there twice before, said there were no exit signs over the doors. It is rare to see such signs in Brazilian clubs.
Video from the scene showed firefighters shooting streams of water at the club and shirtless men trying to break down a wall with axes.
Hours later, families and friends searching for information were outside a nearby sporting complex, where bodies were taken for identification, the state-run Agencia Brasil reported.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff became teary-eyed as she spoke of the tragedy to reporters in Chile, where she has been attending a regional summit. Rousseff said she was heading to Santa Maria later Sunday.
“The Brazilian people are the ones who need me today,” she said. “I want to tell the people of Santa Maria in this time of sadness that we are all together.”
The fire started at about 2 a.m. after the acoustic insulation in the Kiss nightclub caught fire, Silva said.
There was a pyrotechnics show going on inside the club when the fire started. Authorities stopped short of blaming it for the blaze, saying the cause was still under investigation.
The incident called to mind a 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island where pyrotechnics used by the heavy metal band Great White ignited a blaze that killed more than 90 people.
Pyrotechnics were also involved in a 2004 night club fire in Argentina that killed 194 people and a 2009 explosion at a night club in Russia that left more than 100 dead.
The Kiss nightclub is popular with young people in Santa Maria, drawing between 2,000 and 3,000 people a night on the weekends.
The blaze broke out during a weekend when students were celebrating the end of summer. Students at many Brazilian universities return to school on Monday.
Santa Maria is home to the Federal University of Santa Maria as well as a number of other private universities and colleges.
By Shasta Darlington, reporter from Sao Paulo, Brazil and Marilia Brocchetto, reporter from Atlanta.
CNN’s Helena DeMoura and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.
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