By Shasta Darlington, Marilia Brocchetto and Helena DeMoura
SAO PAULO, Brazil (CNN) — Panicked crowds pushed toward the exits as fire swept through a packed nightclub in southern Brazil early Sunday.
Hundreds didn’t escape in time.
The blaze at the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria killed at least 233 people, Brazilian Health Minister Alexandro Padilha told reporters. Many of them apparently died from smoke inhalation, state-run Agencia Brasil reported. Others were trampled in the rush for the exits, one security guard told CNN affiliate Band News.
More than 90 people were hospitalized, Padilha said, including 14 patients with severe burns.
About 2,000 people were inside the club when the fire broke out — double the maximum capacity of 1,000, said Guido de Melo, a state fire official.
Investigators have received preliminary information that security guards stopped people from exiting the club, he told Globo TV.
“This overcrowding made it difficult for people to leave, and according to the information we have, the security guards kept people from leaving the building,” he said.
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.
“People started running,” survivor Luana Santos Silva told Globo TV. “I fell on the floor.”
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.
Video from the scene showed firefighters shooting streams of water at the club and shirtless men trying to break down a wall with axes.
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.
Valderci Oliveira, a state lawmaker, told Band News that he saw piles of bodies in the club’s bathroom when he arrived at the scene hours after the blaze. It looked “like a war zone,” he said.
Police told Band News that 90% of the victims were found in that part of the club.
Shoes and cell phones were strewn on the ground in the charred rubble of the club Sunday, said Glauber Fernandes, a reporter from Band News.
“While we were there we saw the cell phones ringing. Parents, friends, trying to know about what was happening,” he said. “No one was answering.”
The roof collapsed in several parts of the building, Fernandes said, trapping many inside.
Desperate families and friends wept as they searched for information outside a local gymnasium where bodies were taken for identification later Sunday. Inside, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff met with some of them as they waited on bleachers for word of their loved ones.
Rousseff became teary-eyed as she spoke of the fire to reporters in Chile earlier Sunday. She had been attending a regional summit there, but cut short the trip and returned to Brazil early to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy.
“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.”
An accordionist who had been performing onstage with a band when the fire broke out was among the dead, drummer Eliel de Lima told Globo.
The fire started around 2 a.m. after the acoustic insulation in the Kiss nightclub caught fire, said Col. Adilomar Silva, the regional coordinator of civil defense.
Police were interviewing witnesses as part of an investigation into what caused the blaze, state-run Agencia Brasil reported.
“There just weren’t enough emergency exits,” Mateus Vargas, a witness who was inside the club when the fire broke out, told Band News.
The club’s license had expired in August and had not been renewed, local fire official Moises da Silva Fuchs told Globo TV.
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 100 people.
Pyrotechnics were also involved in a 2004 nightclub fire in Argentina that killed 194 people and a 2009 explosion at a nightclub 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.
Shasta Darlington reported from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Marilia Brocchetto and Helena DeMoura reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.