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Fire at Swedish Disco Kills 60

October 31, 1998

GOTEBORG, Sweden (AP) _ Hundreds of teen-agers, many of them immigrants, jammed into the second-floor disco to celebrate Halloween by hip-hopping the night away. By the time the sun rose Friday, 60 were dead and 173 injured in the worst fire disaster in modern Swedish history.

Bent metal bars on some windows showed the panic-fueled strength that the teen-agers exerted as they kicked their way out of the inferno. With about 400 people crowded inside, it was packed to more than twice its legal capacity.

``Everybody panicked,″ Christian Czari, 15, said outside the building Friday. ``Nobody cared about the girls. The strongest made way first. Kids were fighting each other to get out.″

Police said 20 of the 173 injured were clinging to life. Of the dead, only 14 bodies had been indentified by Friday evening _ a process made painstakingly slow because bodies were badly burned and many youngsters weren’t carrying identification.

Below the second-floor windows lay stray shoes, broken glass and bloody blankets used to wrap the casualties. Teens gathered there Friday, weeping in disbelief among memorial bouquets of fresh flowers lying on the pavement where victims had lain in the otherwise nondescript neighborhood of small retail shops.

``I’ve been crying all day. I haven’t been able to sleep. I’m alive, so why should I sleep when my friends are dead?″ asked 17-year-old Alina Turk, standing outside the ruined building. She said she had been at the dance and two male friends of hers died.

Zuhir Hersi, the 17-year-old disc jockey at the hall, spoke of the ordeal in telegraphic bursts. ``Panic. No help. No police. No firemen. Only kids helping each other,″ he said from his bed in a Goteborg hospital.

Although Hersi, like many at the dance, believes the police and firemen were slow to arrive, authorities said the first fire trucks were there within five minutes of the alarm. But the fire spread so quickly that even an instant response likely would have been too late.

Police said most victims choked to death on smoke and poisonous gases.

The cause of the blaze wasn’t clear. Fire Brigade Engineer Bo Wahlstroem said the fire’s swift, raging spread could indicate arson, or that it had burned undetected for a time before exploding.

The fire destroyed the building, which housed on the second floor the Macedonian immigrant association in Goteborg, Sweden’s second-largest city. The association had rented out the hall for the night to eight party-arrangers, police said, but refused to identify them.

The crowd was mostly 13 to 18, witnesses said, and consisted mainly of immigrants or children of immigrant parents. Officials said the dead and injured were of 19 nationalities, including Somalis, Ethiopians, Iraqis, Iranians and Swedes, as well as people from the current and former Yugoslavia and unspecified Latin American countries.

Identifying the dead was a wrackingly slow process, forcing relatives and friends already exhausted with dread to wait for hours at hospitals. Some were able to stay in rooms off-limits to journalists, but many had to wait in corridors, crying and watching teen-agers hurry in and out of rooms while they looked for their friends.

``The identification is hard not only because of the burns but also because they have no driver’s licenses or other documents _ they were so young,″ said Kerstin Einarsson of Sahlgrenska Hospital, the largest in the city of 435,000 residents about 300 miles west of Stockholm.

The worst previous Swedish fire disaster in modern history was in 1978 in Boraas, when 20 people died in a hotel fire. The blaze early Friday shocked a nation renowned for its calm. King Carl XVI Gustaf, traveling outside the country, sent a statement reassuring victims’ relatives that ``all of us in Sweden feel great sympathy.″

Prime Minister Goeran Persson traveled from Stockholm to the site of the fire, first laying flowers outside and than walking into the gutted wreck.

``The floor was full of shoes and boots, the same kind of boots my own children wear,″ he said.

On Friday evening, about 1,500 people, mostly young, came to the Goteborg Cathedral to try to assuage their grief and bewilderment at a memorial service. The youths were dressed in the same sort of hip-hop garb that the dance-goers had worn, but listened to delicate hymns instead of pounding rhythms.

They wept, they embraced, and some looked around nervously, as if unsure how to behave in a church.

``I don’t go to church. I’m a Muslim, but I don’t go to prayers,″ said a young man who gave his name only as Sami. ``I’m accompanying my Christian friends. We lost someone. We’re mourning _ that’s all.″

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