Tragedy for Romania: 65 people died in a fire in 2015
15.01.2020 19:46

Tragedy for Romania: 65 people died in a fire in 2015

Andra Bichigean

It was the evening of October 30, 2015. More than 300 rock fans, most of them young, participated in the concert of the metal rock band GoodBye to Gravity, in the Colectiv club, where they released their second album, "Mantras of war", in Bucharest. A club set up in the former Pioneer factory, which had only one entrance. The band that organized the concert had signed a rental contract with the club's administrators and pledged not to pay for the space, if more than 400 people come to the concert.

The organizers announced a new show, a light show, pyrotechnic effects, specially created decorations and other surprises. Among those who came to the concert were many artists, photographers, journalists, architects, students, as well as foreign citizens and some minors. To make the show attractive, the organizers wanted to set up fireworks in the club and turned to a specialized company. "Careful! It is used only outdoors! Misuse can result in injury or fire!” The fireworks, with instructions in the Bulgarian language and which the prosecutors say could only be used outdoors, were lit, on stage, after the first songs played by the band.

Prosecutors found that the control panel that generated the ignition of the pyrotechnic effects did not work properly, and the sparks reached the pillar in front of the scene, dressed in a sponge that was not treated to resist the fire. In a fraction of a second, the material ignited, and the flame quickly ascended to the wooden ceiling. "I saw someone pouring beer from a bottle. By the time he reached the ceiling, effectively half of the ceiling was instantly lit”, a survivor later said. 

The fire lasted for 153 seconds. Both had over 300 people available to go out on the club's only door. "The escape door was only one open, the other was locked, they were trampled on," recalls another survivor. 27 young people died on the spot in the container at the entrance to the club, and nearly 150 were hospitalized with severe burns or intoxicated with smoke. As the days went by, another 37 did not survive the wounds, infections taken from hospitals and the cocktail of harmful substances they breathed in those nightmares. A 65 years old survivor ended his days after two years. Many others were left with signs for life. And Romania has never been the same.

There are many voices that say that the civic spirit of the Romanians was reborn in that late October night. It was probably the drop that filled the glass of humility and carelessness. Then the angry crowd shouted for the first time, in unison, "Corruption kills". The Ponta government collapsed, on street pressure, on November 4, 2015.

Three club administrators were indicted for failing to take security measures

On that fateful night, from October 30 to 31, 2015, the three club administrators, Alin Anastasescu, Paul Gancea and Costin Mincu, went to the police. They were indicted for murder and injury and failing to take security measures at work. Prosecutors said they chose cheap, non-fireproof materials for the club's antiphoning, encouraged large numbers of people to attend the concert, and did not instruct employees how to respond in case of a fire. In turn, the defendants claimed that they did not know how to do more and that they relied on the specialized companies with which they worked both in designing the cube and in training the employees. In addition, they tried to prove that they had no involvement in organizing the concert on October 30, 2015.  "I regret that I did not know how to do something that this tragedy did not happen," said Costin Mincu, administrator at Colectiv.

Prosecutors have charged him with murder and bodily injury and the owners of the fireworks company. They listened to their phones and discovered that immediately after the tragedy, Daniela Niţă and her brother, Cristian, destroyed evidence from the company's computer to hide the irregularities. In addition, they accused them of using fireworks in the Colectiv and they did not train the pyrotechnists to know how to use them. The two employees who handled the fireworks game on the night of the tragedy were also charged.

At the hearings, the employers in the Colectiv confessed to the investigators that they were checked twice by employees of the Inspectorate for Emergency Situations, who assured them that the place was safe. The National Anticorruption’s Direction (Direcția Națională Anticorupție, DNA) prosecutors notified and blamed firefighters Antonina Radu and Matei Petrică for abuse of service. They reproached them for having checked the club outside of working hours and did not report any irregularities to the superiors.

The former mayor of Sector 4, Cristian Popescu Piedone, and three City Hall officials were also accused of abuse of office. DNA prosecutors said they illegally issued the operating notice for the Colectiv, though the club was not sure about fire protection. It would have been based on a decision of the Local Council, even if it had to comply with a law. "I trust the justice," said former mayor Cristian Popescu Piedone. All the defendants were arrested for several months, except one of the firefighters, who was injured in the fire. Their files were sent separately to court, but they were finally reunited under the same case, at the Bucharest Court. The trial started in the spring of 2016, but was blocked because the first judge, Mihail Terceanu, retired. The file was taken over, at the end of last year, by the magistrate Mihai Bălănescu.

The victims had severe burns on their skins

According to Raed Arafat, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 30 people died in the fire and it was possible to double the number of deaths among those injured in the Colectiv club, 90 patients being in serious or critical condition. The victims had severe burns on the skin, but especially on the trachea and lungs, and there was a risk that they succumb. Many were affected not only by burns, but also by poisoning with smoke, carbon monoxide or other toxic gases (especially cyanides) resulting from the burning of materials (sponges, furniture) in the club. Also, many people were injured because they fell and were trampled by others. Among the 64 deceased persons were the two guitarists of the band Goodbye to Gravity, Vlad Țelea and Mihai Alexandru, but also Alex Pascu (bass) and Bogdan Lavinius (drums). Another 184 people, most of them young, were injured, of whom 146 needed immediate hospitalisation. Among the wounded were 4 foreigners: two Spaniards, one German and one Dutch. The only survivor of Goodbye to Gravity was Andrei Galut, who was seriously injured. Another well known artist, Adrian Despot, the leader of the Vița de Vie band, was also injured in the fire. 

The injured were admitted to several hospitals in Bucharest, but Raed Arafat said that due to the large number of victims in some hospitals, there were no beds anymore, and the wounded were redirected to other hospital units. Also, at the hospitals where the victims of the fire were admitted, ventilation devices that were not used in other units were brought in. Also, The Minister of Health asked the press to send the citizens to donate staged blood and not to crowd the transfusion centers, specifying that the plasma and blood needed for the victims of the fire at the Club Collegiate currently assured that the effort should be preserved for the next few days, and skin donation is not needed at this time.

There were more causes of injuries and deaths, so the people who suffered or died as a result of the fire in the Colectiv club had thermal burns of the skin and airways, but were also intoxicated with smoke, carbon monoxide. Some of them had traumas, being trapped under rubble or trampled as a result of the panic and bustle created during the fire. Tremendous testimonies come from the injured in the fire at the Colectiv club.

Victims' testimonies

Some patients, who could be mobilized from the salon, recounted the moments they passed on the evening of October 30, but also how their lives changed after the tragedy in the Bucharest club:

"I was with my friends from other bands, to support other friends who were then on stage and they were releasing their second album. When the fire broke out, it was a state of general hypnosis, no one expected this phenomenon. The soloist asked for a fire extinguisher, but it didn't seem to be helpful. After a few seconds, the strong fire started sending the world to the exit, in a bustle that nobody would want to have. I was exactly in the middle of the stage, four meters away from the stage, in front of the main cameras”, said Andrei Trifu, 44 years old.

"At that moment, I was able to make my way to the exit, I saw that the fire was increasing and, from my 25 years of military training, I realized that something was wrong. Before, I called to everyone to leave as slow as possible. I tried to induce people a wave of reactions, to react somewhat positively and to save as many as possible. To the exit was created a bustle, the most unprepared tried to shoot the front to get out. I, towards the exit, managed to hold my breath for about a minute and a half, with my eyes closed, I crawled on my elbows, as I learned in the army. This saved my airway. At this moment someone was pulling my left foot. Two people managed to lift the person off my leg and take us away from that place," said Andrei Trifu. Asked who thinks he is guilty of producing the tragedy, he replied: "First of all, those in charge of the club. The management of the club had to put minimum safety measures in case of fire. These measures must exist everywhere. There must be a fire extinguisher, a hydrant, things to handle when such phenomena happen. I believe that the true culprits will eventually be punished. I came here to support these wonderful people who helped us overcome physical and psychological pain. We have here teams that deal with us throughout the day and even at night, who have given up the family to take care of us”.

Another patient said that they, along with the other wounded, are trying to maintain a good spirit and that they have been exemplified by the staff at Bagdasar Arseni Hospital: "People have seen enough sadness, enough death on television, enough victims. Ask us if we will ever forget. We don't have to forget that. This does not have to happen in a civilized state. The greatest wealth of the world is not oil or money, but people. We will never forget those special people and dedicate a commemorative concert every year”. He said, pointing out that this experience made him change his outlook on life: "The mood we try to keep as good as possible. We easily accept to laugh, to enjoy life, because we have seen that death is very bad. We try to enjoy every moment. We thank the volunteers, the team of doctors, nurses, women who clean 4-5 times a day. We feel loved by these people. I changed my optics. It is more pleasing to enjoy than to hate. It is more pleasant to make a gift than to take something from someone. We are treated extraordinarily. Whoever says that the Romanian medical system is not well developed, knows nothing. In this hospital we were treated for the first time as family members. There are doctors who have been on guard for three days to take care of us”.

"We are not here to punish anyone. We cannot give our opinion. We want things to have their natural way. The guilty, if found guilty, will pay. We thank the people who thought of us, the Bagdasar Arseni Hospital who took care of us as their children, we thank the service women who have a good word for us every day. Thanks to us, we can talk to you today. We are glad to see that the Romanian people are a people, not a circus. We have been divided for 25 years, now we are united”, the man added.

Alex, another wounded, in the fire in the Colectiv, also wanted to express his appreciation to the doctors, stressing that they deserve the respect and admiration of all: "The first word that comes to mind is excellent. I don't know how appropriate it is, but I really feel great. My condition has changed a lot for the better. They are great people who deserve our respect and appreciation of all. I know there's a lot of talk, a lot of talk. This is how we are learned, and it is a pity that we hurt certain people who do good. (...) I was with a friend of mine. He escaped, he has nothing. Now we are trying to maintain our well-being. We're trying to forget. I saw people who died in my eyes.” 

Regarding the atmosphere in the hospital, the patient said: “We are a family, we love each other, a lot of love came from unknown people, volunteers. I know people who I don't know and who want to help us come. That's what I want you to know. There are good people in Romania. I did not know that there are so many Romanians so good that they joined, I know that they went out. I want to get out with a clear message. This time we believe in a change and it would be good to start with the change in hospitals. To invest in hospitals.”

Remus Achim: "Young people came to have fun, never to witness a tragedy"

Remus Achim is a journalist who attended the Colectiv club concert and witnessed the tragedy. He told how it all started: "It began like any normal evening. Young people came to have fun, never to witness a tragedy. I went to see the concert because I am friends with one of the band members and I had other friends who were at the concert. Initially, I didn't want to go. The concert had already started when I arrived. Fun, good cheer. At the end of the concert, the band members wanted to surprise those present and had two fireworks. Fireworks purchased from the supermarket, trivial, simple, left and right of the stage. The fireworks were lit and one of the pillars in front of the stage, which was padded with sponges, lit up because of the sparks. It caught fire instantly, and the fire rose to the ceiling, where there were some wooden beams. Immediately those wooden beams caught fire. In about 30 seconds it was chaos. No windows, only one exit. No one knew where to go. Initially it was a funny situation, I could say, because the vocalist of the band said: "We were not expecting fire"

When did you realize that something was wrong?

"I went to the area where the flame was, to take pictures. Everyone was laughing. When I got close, I saw that little flame growing bigger, a valve. I went back to my group of friends and said: “Come on!” In front of us, some people had already come out of the club. The door was about one meter wide, we were actually passing people, we were walking over people or they were walking over us, it was bulky. We managed to get outside, me and a friend, behind us was a friend, and I couldn’t find another one, I did not know what is with him."

Before you left, did you start to feel smoke or heat?

“I felt a very strong heat; I went out when it was a fire, it still hadn't been smoke, it was a strong flame and then I went out. Behind me were people who were beginning to scream, shake, shout, "Burn!" Burn! Burn! ”Probably behind the room many did not realize what was happening. 

What did you see when you got outside?

“We went out and passed other people on our own and other people passed on us and we breathed. Behind us, a strong smoke began to emerge. People were screaming, you heard all kinds of names around you. People were looking for friends, boyfriend, girlfriend, brother, sister. From time to time, one would come out that had flames on it or had burnt clothes, melted on it and burnt skin. He smelled of burning flesh. I went out in the first wave, in the second wave there were wounded people. They could not breathe anymore and we tried to pull them to take them further to the left, to the right to take out the others. Even the burned ones came out on their feet. There were people lying on the floor walking. There were people burning. They were burning on their own. You saw people with flames on them. You couldn't touch them, you couldn't do anything."

Have you tried to help the injured, to give them first aid?

“I thought of first aid, but I didn't know what first aid meant, because you saw them on their feet, they had smokey clothes, you saw burnt skin, but you couldn't put your hand on them. Others were lying on the floor and screaming. I searched for a water bottle and thought that if I put water on me, I can enter. But it was not possible, because at the entrance there were waves of people. Initially only two ambulances came and then more, because you could not understand the seriousness of the incident.”

Did the club staff try to help people?

“The staff of the club was definitely out of position. I do not mean something that is not true, but probably they had also left. When I left the club, neither ambulances nor firefighters came, absolutely nothing. I called four times to 112 to say that it caught fire. The first time a fire engine came. I left a friend in the ambulance and went back to the others. After a quarter of an hour he was still there. We got in a car and went to Floreasca (a hospital name).
There is something I can't get out of my mind. An image of a young woman who was completely burned, had only a pair of panties on it, all the rest was burnt, black and smoky, had long hair and she was smoking her hair on her own and she was passing by. I asked her: "Are you OK?". She said, "Yes, I'm OK." But it was like a zombie, in a state of shock. Some doctors have come to help her.”

Protesters gather every year to commemorate

On November 1th, 2015 at the University Square in the capital, a fire march was organized to commemorate the victims of the fire in the Colectiv club where 8000 people participated, afterwards the crowd went to the premises where there were another 2000 people who came to bring a last one tribute to the missings. The meeting in Bucharest started at 18:00 and gathered until the closing time at 1:30 the next day 25,000 people. On October 30, every year, there are victims commemoration marches organized in every city of Romania. It's been four years since survivors and relatives of those who died following the fire demand justice. The process was not over, it was resumed again earlier this year.