Published February 9, 2007
The main concept of tourism for young people in Brazil is the search for cheap places that are completely different from the typical national identity. This New Year’s holiday I thought it would be perfect to fly to Buenos Aires, a city that feels European, filled with beautiful people, good food and cheap currency (thanks to our über-valorized reais). It was also the anniversary of the tragedy at Plaza Once, where 194 died (including babies, one of them only ten months old) and 714 were injured in a fire in República de Cromañón, one of the five biggest nightclubs in Buenos Aires. Two years after the second biggest non-natural disaster in Argentina, Plaza Once is as much alive as it has ever been with protests, marches and shouts for justice on the “porteño” streets.
On a still night on December 30, 2004, the band Callejeros (Spanish for “streetwise”) were playing at the República de Cromañón nightclub for an audience of 3000 people, when a pyrotechnic flare set fire to a plastic-net roof. The panic spread while a huge toxic black cloud formed. Most victims died from asphyxia and burning of respiratory organs by carbon monoxide and cianidric acid. Others died from burns and from being crushed in the middle of the choas, some of them having come back into the club to rescue friends. The official capacity of Cromañón was 1300 people, and four of the six emergency doors were locked with padlocks so attendants couldn’t come in without paying.
In Argentina, flares have always been used in rock concerts, just as much as in soccer matches, with the same passion and cathartic intensity. The fact that the person responsible for lighting the flare has never been found is not the most tragic aspect of this episode. It is the neglect that is frightening: the old brown classic building didn’t have exterior ventilation; ten of the fifteen fire-extinguishers were not pressurized; the club’s fire inspection certificate had expired two years before; and the exterior roof intended for expelling toxic air was covered with two soccer fields (!). Among the dead were a few children of the employees, who took their kids to the place because it was a holiday.
Osmar Chabán, Cromañón’s owner, was immediately accused. A famous local promoter and stage person since the 80s, he helped shape the Buenos Aires rock scene as it is today: hard guitars in pop tracks, extreme competition among the bands and huge concerts with pyrotechnics. While Chabán has been jumping from prison to prison for the past two years, investigators have found ghost companies created by Chabán, intended to clean up dirty money. So far, he is the only one who has been arrested in relation to the incident. There are 17 more people awaiting trial in early 2008, including the band members.
The investigations lead to the resignation of Aníbal Ibarra, mayor of Buenos Aires, mainly because of his suspected links with Chabán and for not attending to any of the 40 alerts about the awful situation in several Buenos Aires venues, including Cromañón. Anibal and Chabán are the two main villains called “¡ASESINOS!” (murderers) in all marches, including the recent two-year anniversary protest in Plaza de Mayo.
A judge accused the Callejeros of “the promotion of pyrotechnics with absolute disrespect for physical health of its fans”. They deny all charges but some witnesses have said that they wanted fire that night, even helping people to get into Cromañón through backdoors, far from the security. Others say that three little kids ignited the flare, some claim it was the stage assistant. The truth will probably never be known.
In the wake of the tragedy, all clubs and stages in Buenos Aires were closed and they could only be reopened when proper documentation and new safety and fire systems were in place. It took months for the city to get its musical scene back, and people started travelling on weekends to other cities in Buenos Aires province, such as Mar del Plata, to party.
I watched a retrospective about Cromañón on a local TV news station. In an interview with the TV station, a young rocker said that he and some friends would fight against the restriction of fires at concerts, because “it was part of a culture”. Argentines are as attached to their traditions as they are to good wine and barbecues. The rock audience behaviour can, in some ways, be compared with soccer hooligans. The bands come from the suburbs, bringing with them young neighbours supporting the guys who grew up in the same distant area, loving only THAT band, and no other. It is district rock, something that conservatives would even call “gangs”. Callejeros came from the poor Villa Celina. While they have been chastised for being opportunistic and irresponsible, they are also, somehow, victims of the fire: the singer lost his fiancée and the guitarist four relatives.
In 2005, any intentions for the band’s comeback were ruined by a noisy protest by an association of victims’ families. The band members are often called murderers and attacked on the streets. Furthermore, no manager or promoter wants the “fire band” in their venue. It was only in July 2006 that they returned to the stage, as guests of a famous band they were friends with. The rock crowd remain the staunchest supporters of Callejeros, including the music media. “It was the biggest penal discussion in Argentina’s history but some tried to divert it to the rock field: to its musicians, audience, and media”, said the last Argentinian edition of the Rolling Stone, with a huge six-page-interview with Chabán.
The Cromañón ashes are now a perfect vehicle for a foreigner to comprehend the Argentinian soul. A sanctuary was built close to the venue for the victims with chairs, posters, homages and altars. People come there to pray, cry, remember, think and leave personal belongings, letters, gifts and the like (a mother left a pack of Marlboro close her son’s picture). The space functions as a permanent cemetery where people can express not only their views, but mainly their sadness. A cop told me it’s common for people who are sad for any reason to go there to sit and cry, seeking solace in the company of the victim’s families and sensible “b-side” tourists. It’s almost impossible not to feel depressed visiting the space, and the way Argentines deal with the loss and the sadness is almost poetic. It is not by chance they have the tango and the highest number of psychologists per capita in the world.
In the building, protest paintings, posters and lots of burnt Converse All-Stars hang on a rope, the official symbol of the tragedy. The text “Los Pibes Solo Querian a el Rock” (The people only wanted to rock) inscribed on several of them makes this “symbol” look like a morbid art installation. Another symbol of Cromañón is a sign with “Prohibido Olvidar” (Never Forget), that made me think about Brazil. Rather than glamourizing sadness, Argentina really preserves what happens in its history. The cliché aphorism about us Brazilians, “Brazil has no memory”, is sometimes true: a plane crashed here a few months ago killing 150 people and we don’t even know if they have families mourning them! It’s the price we pay for being “the Latin-American country of the future!” – we end up without a past.
When I left the Cromañón sanctuary, I noticed one more sign that serves as a final note on this travesty. A hundred metres from the venue, a huge advertisement, the only coloured thing in Plaza Once, reads: FUEGOS ARTIFICIALES JÚPITER (Júpiter Pyrotechnics). It is stupidly ironic, if not sad.
Jade Augusto Gola is the asst. editor of www.rraul.com in São Paulo, Brazil