At least 175 people died and 700 were injured when a flare thrown from the audience started a fire at a concert in a Buenos Aires nightclub.
Most of the victims were aged between 15 and 20. They had been watching a performance by the rock group Los Callejeros at the Republica Cromaqon nightclub in the run-down area of Once, near the city centre.
It is the worst disaster in the Argentinian capital since the city’s Jewish Centre was blown up in 1994 and 96 people were killed.
Officials said the cause of the fire on Thursday night was a flare released by a member of the audience, which ignited nylon fabric that had been illegally hung on the ceiling to improve the acoustics at the nightclub.
The fire spread rapidly. Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation, although some were crushed in the stampede to get out. Among those in hospital are fire-fighters, including 18 with serious injuries.
Questions were being asked in the city yesterday over reports suggesting that many of the doors, including the emergency exit, had been padlocked to prevent people getting in without paying.
Police are looking for the club’s owner, Omar Chaban, a leading figure in the city’s underground rock nacional scene. He was said to have left the premises shortly before the fire broke out. The man who is thought to have padlocked the doors was arrested yesterday.
The tragedy was made worse by the fact that the number of people inside the building at the time of the fire meant it was above its capacity, although what exactly the capacity is and how many people were actually inside is not yet known.
Christian Torrejon, the uncle of the group’s bass guitarist who was sent to hospital, said: "There were 6,000 people in a place that had a maximum capacity of 4,000."
The mayor, Anibal Ibarra, defended the government’s control and inspection of nightclubs, known as boliches. He said the club had emergency doors and had passed fire checks, and that "irresponsible behaviour", the closing of the doors and overcrowding were to blame for the deaths.
The Interior Minister, Anibal Fernandez, said: "Theoretically, the place conformed to safety standards but in practice all but two doors were tied with wire. The youngsters were condemned in a lethal trap."
Babies and toddlers were among the dead, and survivors said one of the club’s lavatories was used as a makeshift crèche. One of the audience said: "People who listen to rock ‘n’ roll want their kids to listen to it too. It’s part of the spirit of the hippy era."
There was chaos on the streets outside the club on Thursday night, with each ambulance treating five or more victims on the streets outside the nightclub. Young people searched for their friends and relatives, and helped to tend the injured.
Rows of bodies, mostly those of young people in shorts and trainers, were lined outside the nightclub until they could be taken to a mortuary. People living near by came to help.
One of them, Maria Delgado, said: "We were trying to resuscitate them with mouth-to-mouth and piling them into the ambulances but they had already suffocated. There were kids everywhere. We really didn’t know who we should help first."
By yesterday morning there were more desperate scenes outside the morgue, where families gathered to try to identify their loved ones from photographs of the bodies being kept there.
The authorities pleaded for calm and asked people to head to an information centre rather than swamp the city’s hospitals. Many, however, were still wandering at the scene of the fire, hoping to find their children there.
One man said: "I’m searching for my 14-year-old nephew. My brother went to the morgue to look there, but I’m here, with a bit of hope."
The government of Argentina has declared three days of national mourning.