By Raffaela Kenny-Cincotta, News Staff
Looking through her Twitter feed a few weeks ago, Rawan Alkhatib breezed over a breaking news story about a fire in southern Brazil.
Alkhatib, who is currently in her first year at Northeastern, briefly thought of her family living in the South American nation, but brushed off the story thinking a tragedy of this magnitude could never happen in the quaint city of Santa Maria, where her aunt, uncle, cousins and grandmother live. It wasn’t until her phone started ringing with messages from relatives “crying and panicking” that Alkhatib’s view of the event shifted from a distant disaster to a horrific reality.
In the early hours of Jan. 27, a large fire swept through a nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil killing more than 230 people. According to the Associated Press, the fire at Kiss nightclub is suspected to be caused by a local music group’s amateur pyrotechnics. Eyewitnesses at the scene recounted a flare being lit from the stage and igniting flammable material on the ceiling. The AP also reported that the club did not have sprinklers or fire escapes, which is why most victims died from smoke inhalation rather than the flames themselves.
Alkhatib, an international affairs major, hails from Dorado, Puerto Rico, but she visits her family in Santa Maria regularly. She described the city as a tight-knit community where “everybody knows everybody.”
“I kept thinking, ‘This would literally never happen in Santa Maria,’ because it’s such a small town, so safe,” Alkhatib recalled in a phone interview Monday. “There’s really a communal thing about it that just makes it seem like nothing like this could ever happen.”
Adding to the tragedy was the fact that one of the victims in the club that night was a neighbor and close friend of Alkhatib’s cousin. Alkhatib recounted often spending time with the girl, a 20-year-old named Julianna, during her frequent visits to Brazil.
“I always hung out with [Julianna],” she said.
The Northeastern student noted that her family narrowly avoided its own loss as one of her cousins, 18-year-old Nader, was planning on going to Kiss the night of the fire. Thankfully, according to Alkhatib, her aunt and uncle are “pretty strict” and forbade Nader from going to the club on that ill-fated night.
“We’re really grateful he ended up not going,” Alkhatib said.
When asked how her family is dealing with the tragedy, Alkhatib said that her cousins are “going through a lot” and that her immediate family plans to make a trip to Brazil next winter.
Though Brazil is thousands of miles from Huntington Avenue, Alkhatib said the nightclub fire should still resonate in the local community.
“The reason this should really touch base with the Northeastern community is because everyone here, whether they’re underage or of age, go to these nightclubs and they go to these cool spaces and they never really have much regard for safety or any of that kind of stuff,” she said. “And this made me realize how when we’re trying to experience our youth and have fun and all that we aren’t very conscientious of the risk that comes with that. After being with my cousin and seeing the things that she’s seen, and my other cousin as well, my family’s been completely impacted by this. It’s pretty life-changing.”