By Igor Jovanovic
A sudden fire that killed six people inside a Serbia dance club earlier this week is drawing more scrutiny — and criticism – of government fire inspectors, who allowed the club to operate without proof of fire protection.
Officials say that the Contrast club, in the northern city of Novi Sad, was inspected and cited late last year for “inappropriate fire protection,” Predrag Maric, the head of the Interior Ministry Emergency Situations Sector, told SETimes.
However, the club was allowed to continue to operate. Early on April 1st, it was packed with 350 young people — twice the legal capacity — when a fire erupted near the stage, killing three men and three women. All died of smoke inhalation.
Maric agreed that the inspectors’ work should be scrutinised and said the matter will be investigated thoroughly.
“However, our human resources capacity is small, both among inspectors and firefighters. Serbia needs 8,000 firefighters and we have only 3,000,” Maric told SETimes.
Firefighters arrived only four minutes after the alarm, but the victims had already succumbed and the crowd was racing from the club. “It is fortunate that no one else was killed in the panic that erupted,” Maric said.
Suspecting that electrical wiring caused the fire, police arrested the owner of the club, and two others, one of them reportedly the electrician hired for the job.
The fire stunned the country, with a three-day mourning period observed in Novi Sad. At a memorial service at the University of Novi Sad, where the victims were students, University President Miroslav Veskovic tearfully told mourners “Those were the faces I remember, kids who had great careers. As it always happens, our best kids are gone. We’re proud to have had them.”
After the blaze, Interior Minister Ivica Dacic ordered fire inspections at all clubs around the nation. An estimated 200 people are killed in fires at such venues a year.
Belgrade Faculty of Security Professor Goran Mandic said that a serious lack of fire prevention contributes to the frequency of such tragedies. He told SETimes that both the state and media are responsible, as they focus on tragic events only after they happen.
“Who now systematically and continuously educates the youth about how to act when they find themselves in any accident, including a fire? Who teaches young girls what to do if targeted by abusers or how to react if they are victims of violence at school, a night club, the street?” he asked.
He added that “Unfortunately, such topics are discussed only after something bad has happened. There is no proactive … part of a system [teaching] young people how to prevent such adverse situations and how they should behave. Only when the state does the important, proactive part, among other measures, and yet something bad happens, can the state say that it did what it could.”
According to Mandic, precedents in Serbia and in other countries suggest actions taken after tragedies are short-lived. “Probably in two or three weeks, no one will talk about this tragedy anymore, and young people still won’t know how to act in case of fire.”
He may well be right. “I’ve really never thought about that when going out to a club. The owners are supposed to take care of safety, think about whether they have two exits, not us,” student Sasa Vukic, 24, told SETimes.
Marina Radosavljevic, 23, agrees. “Of course, I’ve never thought something so horrible could happen to me. Maybe this is an occasion for all of us to ask ourselves what we should do.”