REUTERS - The former manager of a Buenos Aires nightclub was sentenced to 20 years in jail on Wednesday over a fire that killed 194 people, the deadliest blaze in Argentine history.
Relatives of the victims, who held a candlelit vigil in front of the court, wept and held up family photos as the verdict was read out at the end a year-long trial.
Scuffles erupted outside the courtroom and many relatives said they were disappointed by the acquittals of members of the Callejeros rock band that played at the Cromagnon club on Dec. 30, 2004.
“The judges lacked courage by not punishing everyone who was responsible for this. I’m disappointed,” Diego Rozengardt, whose brother died in the fire, said as he left the courtroom.
Band members were acquitted, but the group’s manager, a senior police officer and city government safety officials were also given prison terms.
Club manager Omar Chaban was expected to appeal the ruling, along with the others who were sentenced, meaning they would not immediately go to jail.
The fire broke out when a concert-goer set off a flare in the packed venue soon after the Callejeros came on stage.
The flare sent burning debris and smoke into the crowd, and many of the victims died in a stampede to reach emergency exits that were locked by club owners to prevent people from getting into the show without paying.
Most of the victims were teenagers, but several young children died in a makeshift nursery the club allowed to operate in the women’s bathroom.
“The ruling’s an embarrassment for Argentina’s justice system,” said Silvina Gomez, a survivor who survived the fire that killed her boyfriend Marcelo Taborda, 28. “Callejeros are guilty because they knew about the flares.”
The Cromagnon club remains cordoned off nearly five years since the blaze and relatives have made a shrine to the victims a few feet from the entrance.
Charred sneakers, photos and rosary beads dangle from overhead cables and the walls are marked with graffiti.
“Our children weren’t killed by a firework, they were killed by corruption,” a large sign reads.
Like many survivors and victims’ families, Fabiana Puebla, 32, said the tragedy was caused by a web of corruption and negligence involving club owners, police and city officials.
“Part of my life stayed inside the club; the only thing that kept me alive was that I had to wake everyday seeking justice for him,” said Puebla, pointing to a picture of her boyfriend Jose Cantale, 26, hanging from her neck.