Sunday 27 January 2013

Don't blame Brazilian nightclub fire on 'panic'

So far, 232 have been confirmed dead and over 170 hospitalised in the tragic fire that happened in the Kiss  nightclub in Santa Maria, Southern Brazil. Coverage of the incident by the BBC reports that a fire started after a band was using pyrotechnics on stage, and it quickly spread through the packed nightclub which seems to have had only one working exit. The report also states that;
'Many victims reportedly inhaled toxic fumes or were crushed as panicking clubbers tried to escape'
and a local fire chief is reported as saying;
"People started panicking and ended up treading on each other"

I can believe that asphyxia from smoke inhalation was a major contributing factor in the majority of the fatalities, but I have problems accepting that 'panic' was also to blame, and worry that going into such a narrative has worrying implications that may deflect possible culpability for this tragedy. Studies of behaviour in many different fatal fires (e.g. Canter 1990; Chertkoff & Kushigian 1999) have shown that the idea of panicking and/or stampeding crowds in emergencies is largely a myth, and that social norms (such as queueing, and helping others who fall over) usually endure even in the most deadly situations. Chertkoff & Kushigian (1999) also make the point, that using 'panic' to describe victims behaviour has been used after previous tragedies to deflect blame from the management of venues who were negligent in their safety procedures. We need to find out more information about this awful tragedy, but I think serious questions need to be asked about the safety risks of this and any future events. The combination of using pyrotechnics in a packed venue with only one working exit needs to be looked at before we slip into using lazy definitions of 'panic' to describe such tragedies that are rarely supported by later detailed investigation of what actually happened 

Canter, D (Ed.) (1990) Fires and human behaviour. London: David Fulton.
Chertkoff, J.M. & Kushigian, R.H. (1999). Don’t panic: The psychology of emergency egress and ingress. Westport, CT: Praeger,


  1. Panic didn't fit for what happen in Santa Maria according the survivors. But panic is spread in all news papers and magazines, with a few exceptions. Fernando Saldanha, from Rio de Janeiro.

  2. 'panic' is a common term that is still used in popular coverage of emergencies, despite there being little evidence to support it. One of the reasons I set up this blog was to address what I saw as this common misrepresentation of crowds in emergencies and other mass incidents