This text is the winner of the European Press Prize 2017 Special Award.
The Colectiv club fire not only sparked overwhelming emotion, but also protests, resignations, arrests, pub shutdowns, and public quarrels over the proficiency of emergency systems. Within less than a month, the pain, confusion, and helplessness gave way to political statements, allegations, and speculation. That’s how it always goes. We forget, or re-route the conversation, so we can move on.
Colectiv will become a catchphrase, a moment in time that we’ll discuss without being able to recall what actually happened there. History erases that which goes unrecorded, so we go on perpetuating myths about how the fire started, how people got out, how the interventions from professionals and individuals alike unfurled, and who saved whom.
None of these moments is easy to relive. They’re explicit, like looking at an open wound with a blend of guilt, curiosity, and fascination. If we want to understand, we also need to look. With decency, but with clarity, too. With restraint, but without obstructions.
To reconstruct that night — to the extent that chaos can be reconstructed — we spoke to nearly 30 survivors, read the testimonies of several dozen others, saw videos and hundreds of photos, spoke to officials, read official documents and reports, and took in as much as we could of whatever else was said, filmed, or written. This story is an attempt to put the clipped information we have into some semblance of order. We wrote it, lest we forget. We wrote it because we felt we owed it to the sixty dead and dozens injured who are recovering among us.
Some of them wanted to recount that night so it wouldn’t be forgotten. Others turned us down, telling us we shouldn’t go back to that moment, ever. If you don’t want to return to that night in Colectiv, you might be better off reading something else.
We know this is not the only story about Colectiv that can be told, and it’s certainly not the only one you’re going to read in DoR from now on. Yet, this version of the story, raw as it is, had to be told first.
The DoR Team
Article reported and written by Ana Maria Ciobanu, Andreea Giuclea, Cristian Lupșa, Oana Sandu and Irina Tacu. Additional reporting by Georgiana Ilie, Luiza Ilie, Ancuţa Iosif, Medeea Stan
Emma Bărăscu had been planning to go to the Friday night concert with her boyfriend for days. She’d spent some eight hours on the phone that day the same way she did every day: speaking French to some thirty to forty clients at the company where she works in tech support. She’d come home tired, but both she and her boyfriend Mircea Becherescu, a fan of rock music and client service analyst, knew there was no better remedy than a concert.
And this concert was important.
It was the launch of the Mantras of War LP, by Goodbye to Gravity — a major band in the small world of Romanian rock. Emma hadn’t seen them live before, only listened to them on YouTube. Mircea, however, is a guitar player in three bands and had shared the stage with them at festivals. They said hello whenever they ran into each other. They were brothers in art, and Mircea enjoyed their music — a fresh flavor of heavy metal, merging angry riffs and melodic sections.
Emma and Mircea had fallen in love through music. They became friends on Facebook through a mutual acquaintance who played with Mircea, but they only started talking earlier in the year, after Emma posted the song Apocalyptica by the band Halestorm, which is helmed by a frontwoman. Emma had something of the frontwoman’s attitude, but she was “this tiny blond thing,” aged 25, which is the self-description she gave Mircea, who sported a shaved head with a beard and was 27. The song was a good excuse for Mircea to get in touch with Emma and then go to Constanţa, , Romania’s biggest city next to the seaside, to see her. He didn’t even say hello to her; just kissed her, right off the bat. Over the summer, Emma got a job in Bucharest and they moved in together. That night, they celebrated with music: a night out to see Korn. They most enjoyed themselves at concerts — the major, the medium-sized, and the obscure. It was where they could be themselves, free and among their kind of people. For them, there was bliss. There was happiness. Emma would often say that concerts kept her alive, and no one doubted that Mircea functioned on the charge he got from them as well.
On October 30, 2015 at around 8:30 PM, they got in a cab. They couldn’t wait to get to their people.
At underground concerts, they told themselves, you shake hands with everyone in the room: people you’ve shared the stage with, people you once had a beer with, people you’ve just stood next to at other concerts. You shook hands with the people who fixed your sound system, or who were your bandmates in some line-up, whom you shared mutual friends with, or people you’d only heard about. Goodbye to Gravity (GtG) was one of the best at bringing the community together — it was a well-known fact that you bumped into everyone at their concerts.
GtG had been playing together since 2011. They were among the best and the most thorough. They had played festivals abroad, had recently been signed by Universal Romania, had shot bold videos (the most recent of which, Atonement, was a noir sci-fi featuring starships and space prisons). Their first album had been named the best metal album of 2012 by metalhead.ro, and, at Colectiv, they were launching their second, one they’d been working on for two years. They had advertised a free-entry concert with lighting designs, special stage designs, surprise guests, and pyrotechnics. They didn’t want a gig like any other, but “a show in the true sense of the word,” followed by a “GtG Halloween after-party,” a night no one would soon forget.
Over 300 people went to Colectiv on the evening of October 30. They were band mates, schoolmates, work colleagues, and even teaching colleagues. They sported t-shirts of their favorite bands — As I Lay Dying, Sepultura, Leprous — and they had worked together, heard of one another, or would come together for the first time. In the metal world there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet.
Among them was a senior year Polytechnic student who had sent out over 30 Facebook invites to his friends and school mates just because he really liked GtG and wanted a full house for them; a lead singer who’d done the backing vocals for the album and had a deity tattooed on his leg; two parents with their twelve year old son who had been a rock drummer since he could walk, whom they’d been taking along to concerts for years, and who’d chosen to wear a black t-shirt which said “BOO!” in white type; an eighth grader in a wheelchair, whose friends were taking him to his first concert ever; a female photographer whose exhibition was opening in London in three days, and who had survived seven surgeries on a cyst in her cerebellum; a single father, who’d told himself he wouldn’t stay out too long, since he had some father-daughter time scheduled for the next day; an Architecture professor whose last time out at a club was three years ago and also for GtG — the band’s two guitar players were her former students and she was proud of them — although she was in a weird funk that night and would have rather not gone out at all.
They came on foot, took the subway, got cabs, or drove their own cars and left them in the square out front, or in the tangle of streets nearby. The mammoth-sized building was once home to a sneaker factory during the communist regime. It was now only a series of halls, some derelict and taken out of use, some rented out to companies: a gym, a dancehall, a beauty parlor, and Colectiv. The factory’s name,“Pionierul” or “Pioneer,” was written across the top in cursive font.
The concertgoers passed through an iron gate that opened into an alleyway, which led into a courtyard. After another hundred meters or so, they took a right through a corridor between two buildings. Old tires and wooden pallets leaned against the time-forsaken walls. At the end of the corridor was a metal shipping container, like the ones you see on trucks, painted orange, with the Colectiv logo stamped on its left side. It was installed in 2013 when the club’s owners took over the space from a different club. Over the summer, there’d been a terrace out by the container with tables made of barrels, chairs, a stage, bike racks, and even a foosball table, all of it lit by string lights.
Paul Slayer Grigoriu arrived at the shipping container a little before 9pm. It had been a good year for the 37-year old writer-musician, a Theology and Conservatory graduate. A few months previously, his book Cronicile vulpii (The Fox Chronicles) had been published: 800 pages of teenage memories from the rock musicians that built the ’90s underground scene. His band’s first album, Rising Shadow, is said to be Romania’s first death metal album.
He stepped into the shipping container-turned-hallway. The cloakroom was to the left, so he stopped to leave his leather jacket, and he pocketed ticket no. 46. Then, he entered the 400-square-meter hall, passing through the pulled-back curtain that separated the two spaces.
Colectiv was one of Bucharest’s most popular concert venues. It had seen the likes of hardcore metal acts such as Negură Bunget, rappers like CTC, indie bands, and electro parties for festivals such as Untold and Electric Castle. It was an open space with four massive, floor-to-ceiling, load-bearing pillars, plastered with soundproof foam, and a ceiling covered in rows of wooden joists. To the left of the entrance there was the stage; straight ahead and along the opposite wall, a row of tables; and to the right, the bar and a shelf structure of cubes for bottles. A girdle of paintings surrounded the walls near the bar, hung two weeks previously to commemorate the club’s two-year anniversary. The exhibition was entitled „Trăiri,” or “States of Being”.
There had been many long nights at Colectiv: concerts and parties full of laughter, drinks, hands up in the air, jumping around and kissing underneath the stage lights that swept across the room. Sometimes hundreds of people would take part, and the owners’ estimate for the maximum number of standing attendees was up to 800. There probably were that many in attendance for Behemoth, for instance, when the band lit up items on stage and the crowd turned into a merciless mosh pit. Legal documents said Colectiv was a bar for 80 people seated, but no one went there to sit down.
The first person that Paul Grigoriu chatted with after entering that night was GtG’s drummer, Bogdan Enache, a 41-year-old guy with whom he’d often discussed how difficult it is to focus on metal in Romania. They leaned against the pillar to the left of the stage, which was wrapped in grey soundproof foam that started some 2 meters up — a casing of soft pyramids, stuffy from the smoke and the partying, and whose purpose was to capture sound.
Grigoriu complained about a friend he used to play with who had since switched to commercial music; Enache told him that he gets it: you keep giving and giving to metal, but the audience is small. Grigoriu then headed to the bar, where he shot the breeze with one of the GtG guitar players, with whom he’d also played in Rising Shadow. Vlad Ţelea was 37 years old, a tall guy with a clean-shaven head and a thick but well-trimmed beard. He was an architect who specialized in 3D modeling and a father to a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, whom he’d had trouble convincing to let go of him that morning of that morning.
Grigoriu also said hello to the GtG frontman, bass player Alex Pascu: a 33-year-old graphic designer. Pascu was also featured in Grigoriu’s book because they’d known each other since high school. Grigoriu and his twelfth grade friends had often taunted Pascu. The eighth grade small fry, “short and stocky”, was “their favorite victim”.
“So you’re a rocker, huh?”, they’d ask Pascu with feigned severity.
“Yeah, I’m a rocker, of course.”
“And you’re a fan of what?”
“That’s a great band, way to go. C’mon, give us their discog!”
If Pascu messed up, he’d have to do ten squats while singing the national anthem. Grigoriu noticed that Pascu had grown up fast in terms of craftsmanship. He’d gone from being a kid who’d bought his first bass from Grigoriu, to a musician who’d shared the stage with Lake of Tears, Judas Priest, and Helloween.
Grigoriu wanted to buy a GtG hoodie, so he went to the stand by the entrance where the freshly pressed Mantras of War CDs stood alongside the band t-shirts. Pascu’s girlfriend told him the hoodies were all sold out. “That’s payback for pinning my boyfriend against the wall back in the day”, she joked.
The club was full, but not packed to the point at which you couldn’t move. There were 300, maybe more. The rental contract stated that if 250 to 400 people showed up, the band only had to pay half the rental fee, which usually stood at €1,000. However, if over 400 people showed, they didn’t have to pay a dime because the club would make a profit off of the drinks they sold.
It was getting close to 10pm, already an hour later than the scheduled start of the gig. The instruments were set up and the background music — a playlist compiled by Pascu — was still playing at a volume that allowed for conversation. The sound was controlled from a booth above the bar, from which Adrian Rugină, who had helped the band set up the concert, would climb up and down to adjust it. Rugină, 38, a big, burly guy, was a drummer in a band called Bucium and had been the sound engineer and technical producer for dozens of major concerts such as Depeche Mode, Metallica, Iron Maiden and festivals like Rockstadt Extreme Fest and ARTmania.
At the tables by the wall, Grigoriu saw the “old school” music journos, rocker buddies from the ’90s, event managers, and musicians in other underground bands like Changing Skins, Aeon Blank, Up To Eleven, Shifting Sands, Axial Lead, and Monarchy. In front of the stage, the photographers, fans and friends of the band (Teodora Maftei, Claudiu Petre, Miluţă Flueraș) were picking their spots
By a barrel-table close to the pillar to the left of the stage stood friends of the guitarist, Vlad Ţelea, and his wife, Monica. This may have been her first night out in two years — with the exception of New Year’s Eve –since the birth of their daughter, but this night was important and she wanted to be close to Vlad. Further off, there was Emma and Mircea, who’d gotten numbers 124 and 127 from the cloakroom, met their beer buddies: a couple in advertising; Cosmin Lupu, Days of Confusion’s frontman; the guy with the deity-tattooed leg; bass player Andrei Zamfir, who was a roadie for GtG that night; and Alexandru Iancu, a 22-year-old guitar player, who was trying to convince Mircea to cover Florin Salam [translator’s note: perhaps Romania’s most famous manele performer]. Iancu and Pascu had pulled off a similar stunt when they’d recorded a metal rendition of Salam’s Saint Tropez, which they’d gifted to Lupu in 2013, on his 29th birthday.
The drummer kid in the “BOO!” t-shirt and his parents also stood close by. His mother, Delia Ţugui, was happy they were standing close to the exit, because she was bothered by the cigarette smoke and from there she could feel the occasional waft of fresh air coming in from the shipping container.
There was one last song left on the playlist before the concert could begin and Pascu had picked Shoot to Thrill, a 1980 AC/DC song featured on the 2010 soundtrack to Iron Man 2, as the hero’s theme song:
“All you women who want a man of the street
But you don’t know which way you want to turn
Just keep a coming and put your hand out to me
’Cause I’m the one who’s gonna make you burn.”
The final chords to Shoot to Thrill were Andrei Zamfir’s cue to play the Star Wars piece which Pascu had picked as the show opener. Zamfir, 21, who played the bass in another band, had the job of tuning the guitars that the band had crammed into two cars the day before.
Zamfir knew the instruments well — he’d been a roadie for GtG gigs before, and they’d played and rehearsed together so many times. On the set list, he’d marked the moments when he had to change the old instruments onstage. He knew the band would play songs from the new album during the first part of the concert, then move onto the older, more popular ones. At that point, the stage design would change — the Mantras of War mesh would fall, leaving a new one instead. He knew Adrian Despot from the band Viţa de Vie would be joining them onstage for one song. He knew that they had an acoustic part for which Pascu had wanted a less ‘hammering’ bass, and that Rugină would be directing the lighting from the sound booth over the bar. He knew there’d be moments featuring smoke, as well as pyrotechnics. Aside from the fireworks, which they’d put up the day of the concert, they’d rehearsed everything the night before until past midnight, when Pascu took a photo of Zamfir dozing off onstage, wrapped up in one of the mesh banners.
The fireworks had been brought in a few hours before the concert by a company Rugină had called a week earlier: Golden Ideas. Two employees had come in and fastened the fireworks in bunches of four onto the left and right pillars of the scaffolding that also held the lights, about three meters off the ground. They had initially wanted to place them on the edge of the stage, but gave up, as there was no clear demarcation between the stage and the audience. They’d installed fireworks like these before on other occasions, too. The fireworks were Bulgarian imports, and they couldn’t recall ever having seen Romanian language instructions on the packaging. They inferred from the wrapping that the flame could grow up to three meters tall and that it burned for 15 seconds at a time. The other thing the label said, in Bulgarian, was that the “stage fountain” was solely for outdoor use and had to be lodged upright, so as to erupt vertically. One member of the pyrotechnical staff stayed on at the club and was to ignite them from a control panel to the left of the stage.
At 22:02, the amped-up sound of the intro made people turn toward the stage. The whole band was up there, except for Andrei Găluţ, the lead singer. In the middle, two steps in front of everyone else, in an Iron Maiden t-shirt and a denim vest, flying a “rock on” sign in the air, Pascu was ready. Before him, loads of fans, many in GtG t-shirts themselves, flung beer glasses, clenched fists or “rock on”s in the air. Three short cymbal beats later, the lights went out. A rhythmic guitar riff took off, followed by the bass and the drum bursts. The stage reddened under the static lights. Blue beams pierced through the audience. Fifteen seconds later, the lights came back on and the two streams of whitish fireworks jets gushed into the air from the two metal scaffolds to the sides of the stage.
As planned, the pyrotechnics guy had ignited them from the control panel. They gushed bursts of sparks over the audience, snaking over two meters in length when Găluţ took the stage. Stray sparks jumped toward the two pillars closer to the stage, nearly four meters away. They lasted for 14–15 seconds, and then went out.
To a journalist in the crowd and a bass player in another rock band, the fireworks seemed pointless; the mother of the drummer kid thought they were quite mawkish, like the ones you put on a cake for a birthday party; a couple in the band’s posse made fun of how they looked like wedding fireworks; one of Ţelea’s friends thought of asking him, as a joke, how he could stand next to the fireworks — had he forgotten how Metallica’s James Hetfield had burned himself when one burst in his face and he couldn’t play the guitar for four whole weeks?
It didn’t matter. Găluţ took the microphone from its stand, wrapped its cord around his wrist and started belting out the first lines to The Day We Die. It was the opening song on the new album, the one that Pascu had said best captured its spirit: “A fast, aggressive tempo, but catchy, too, and with an epic chorus line.”
“Your condescending demeanor has all gone wrong
Figured you should have known this all along
We’re not numbers we’re free, we’re so alive
Cause the day we give in is the day we die.”
Zamfir was watching them from the sidelines. Găluţ, 31, the winner of the 2008 edition of Megastar, a televised music talent show, was wearing one of the band’s white-front, black-sleeved t-shirts. Behind him was Bogdan Enache, the “laid-back, witty” drummer. Zamfir admired Enache because he was constantly studying the instrument, even after all those years of playing. On the right side of the stage, dressed in black and embracing a white guitar, Mihai Alexandru, nicknamed Mishoo, was putting on some lively dance moves. To the left stood Ţelea. Even though he and Zamfir could talk about grunge for hours, Zamfir still wasn’t allowed to touch Țelea’s guitar collection. And then there was Pascu, a sort of older brother, who had taught Zamfir what a bass was supposed to sound like.
“Good evening, Colectiiiiv!“, Găluţ bellowed after the first song.
The audience was with them. They chain-played the songs, without any breaks. Zamfir tuned the instruments so the band could switch between them as they went along. Then came Atonement, Pascu’s favorite off the new album; Shadow Puppets, for which Zamfir handed Alexandru a guitar still out of tune — Alexandru was so wrapped up in the concert that he just gestured to leave it as it was; Rise from the Fallen and The Cage.
When he wasn’t bending over the guitars and keeping their strings from dilating in the ever-increasing heat, Zamfir looked into the audience. It seemed to him that people were enjoying themselves, especially the teenagers in the front rows. A 15-year-old kid was bouncing up and down, singing along to all the lyrics and bobbing his head, his hands either up in the air, or propped up against the stage. Next to him, his friend in the wheelchair was happy. The bouncy 15-year-old was also sporting a GtG t-shirt, just like Găluţ’s. He’d won it the night before at a contest on Tanănana radio, where GtG had promoted the concert and their upcoming national tour. The photographers were also in the front row. A couple of rows behind them, two redheaded girls were holding up a sign on white cardboard, on which they’d drawn the band’s logo and the words “We Love Goodbye to Gravity”.
Further toward the bar, the crowd was quieter. Faint, even, it seemed to a copywriter, who felt the sound was too loud, painfully loud and almost unbearable. He was not the only one. Before heading to the center of the room, Grigoriu donned earplugs. Another musician, who had also played at Colectiv, thought the sound was stuffy and the drums too loud. A 26-year-old woman who was taking part in her first metal concert complained to a friend on WhatsApp that “the sound is vvv bad” and the club was filled with “so much smoke. I’ve gotten old.” Monica thought she’d tell Țelea when they got back home that “they wrote such beautiful lyrics for nothing if no one could understand any of them.”
For most people there, however, what was going on was wonderful. You could feel this was a rehearsed gig, with the songs played in a volley, with no breaks for beer sipping or chats. They liked the concert because GtG seemed happy on stage, very, very happy. Because Găluţ and Pascu understood each other through nods and Ţelea walked out to the edge of the stage and nodded in agreement, as if to confirm that his people were there, as if to mirror them. Because the audience knew the lyrics by heart and had fantastic energy. Because even the mosh pit during The Cage seemed organized — Pascu only turned his finger up in the air, and a few teenagers roused a small human hurricane. Because it was a state in which they didn’t need anything, except to be there, to receive all that energy, and listen. Because for while it lasted, it was a brilliant show.
Around 22:25 they moved on to Unusual Suspects, a manifesto-song off the first album. Găluţ extended his microphone to the teenager in the first row to let him sing a line in the second verse:
“Brakes are not for men, or so they say
Better run for cover, don’t stand in our way
I’m feeling pushed into the seat
It makes me feel alive
Changing gears, going faster
Fire-ride with me tonight.”
At the end of the song, Zamfir saw Pascu coming toward him. Pascu handed him the bass in preparation for a prolonged riff rattle on the strings from a re-orchestrated cover of an Iron Maiden song, The Evil That Men Do. “Now it’s your turn to sing the chorus,” Găluţ shouted before the crowd. At 22:31, after introducing Ţelea to the audience during an instrumental interlude, Găluţ stopped by the drum kit to have a sip of water. Then, he came back to the front of the stage to sing the chorus one last time.
“Living on a razor’s edge
Balancing on a ledge
Living on a razor’s edge
You know, you know
The evil that men do lives on and on
The evil that men do lives on and on
The evil that men do lives on and on
The evil that men do lives on and on.”
At 22:32, The Evil That Men Do ended with two beats of the drum and Găluţ bellowing out, “Oh, yeah!” The stage lit up in red and the audience starting clapping and whistling. At that point, the second stream of fireworks started to pour out of the tubes fastened onto the scaffolding that framed the stage.
First, they burned as slowly as they had before. Then, they grew more intense. Jets of sparks flew over the audience. This time, the snakes of fire were two, maybe even three meters long and cut through the air. Stray sparks flew toward the pillars in front of the stage.
Pascu and Găluţ jokingly called out “happy anniversary!” Ţelea and Alexandru walked over to the sides of the stage to switch guitars. Găluţ was left alone in the middle. The people in the front rows could feel warm sparks touch them. It seemed as if the second stream was not only more intense, but also lasted longer than the first one.
“Thank you for coming,” Găluţ said.
Then, the stream stopped.
From where he was standing, Grigoriu saw that some sparks had latched onto the soundproofing foam on the pillar to the left, somewhere to the side, perhaps three meters off the ground. The foam caved in, and Grigoriu saw the sparks turn into a flame, like that of a Zippo lighter. It seemed to him the kind of fire you could put out with your bare hand, even if it burned you a little. Ţelea saw it, too, from the stage, and shook his beer bottle at the foam. Some of the people in the audience did the same.
“Well this was not part of the plan,” said Găluţ. He was joking, as if he expected the flame to go out on its own. “Does anyone have a fire extinguisher?”
One second, two, perhaps, and then the flame started to expand. Within ten seconds it would reach the foam that covered the ceiling.
Gabriel Popescu, the 36-year old father, who had plans to go to the park with his daughter the following day, had just gotten a non-alcoholic beer at the bar when he noticed that the club had gone silent. It had been so noisy up until then that the female bartender had had to read his lips to understand what he was asking for. After he took his beer, he turned around and saw the edge of the pillar. The flame was now like that of a stove.
Popescu heard the bartender ask one of her colleagues, “Listen, where do we keep the fire extinguisher?” The audience didn’t seem to be panicking, but he knew from Steaua’s soccer games that when it does, it wreaks havoc, usually after an intervention from the riot police. People literally trample each other. He didn’t want to go through something like that. Beer in hand, he headed to the shipping container — the only way out. Because he’d always been the guy to call the emergency services whenever he saw something go wrong, he took out his phone and dialed 1–1–2.
What the hell is going on? Zamfir wondered, seeing the flame. He’d run across the stage during the last song and then resumed his seat, to tune Pascu’s bass. The growing light was unnatural. He hadn’t thought much of Găluţ saying this was not part of the plan, but when he heard him ask for an extinguisher, he perked up, saw the flame swallow the pillar, put down the guitar and grabbed his backpack.
The flame climbed up the foam on the pillar without any sign of stopping. From the back of the club, you couldn’t see what was going on too clearly. The Polytechnic student who had invited dozens of his friends to the concert could no longer see the band on stage. He thought that this was an intermission, that some special guest was coming up, but then he saw the flame, too. He also saw liquids being flung at it to no avail. He told his friends, “Let’s leave, ’cause I don’t think this is ok.” They started on their way, past the bar.
The flame was rolling down the pillar as well. Grigoriu saw that people had started to move. He didn’t like getting caught up in crowds, so he also started to make his way toward the exit. He felt as if God was pulling him by the hand. “Don’t panic,” he could hear all around him. Others were going out, too, but carefully, making sure to clear the area, to not get anybody hurt, and possibly to leave some way through for whomever was going to bring the extinguisher. He also thought of getting his jacket from the cloakroom, but then people started to shove, so he continued to move, telling himself he’d go back in to get it later.
Mircea reacted out of instinct. He didn’t even have time to look at the people that he and Emma were sharing a table with. It all happened extremely quickly. He saw the flame climbing, he told Emma, “Let’s go,” grabbed her by the hand, and left. He could only think of her. He just wanted to know that she was all right, and that they were both going to get out of there. They started toward the exit. For a split second, Emma thought they were getting their jackets. She told herself the fire would probably go out, but it’s better that people exit nonetheless. They reached the shipping container and vanished in the bustling crowd.
The flame had extended; yellow-orange waves had gobbled up almost all of the foam that went up to the ceiling. The smell was pungent, burned plastic. Cosmin Lupu, the frontman with the deity tattoo, had also headed for the exit. He didn’t think of anything; his body did all the work out of instinct. People were already cramming toward the container, their eyes glued to the double glazed door that separated them from the outside. Someone was yelling: “Yo, don’t push!” The crowd was like a viscous fluid, waving uncontrollably, teetering on the edge of a funnel. The exit from the container was a double door, but only the left half of it was open.
A man with a fire extinguisher reached the burning pillar. People had made room for him to pass. Zamfir was waiting, watching him struggle to remove the extinguisher’s safety pin and quench the fire. The man wasn’t small, and the red extinguisher was the size of one you’d expect to find in a car, but it seemed to resist him. Seeing this, Zamfir sprung to action. He told himself that if he could manage to put it out, fine. He’d go back up, throw his backpack back in place, resume the tuning, and take the piss: “Hah-hah, whatcha doing there, boss?”
The flames had swallowed up almost the whole pillar. Dozens of people were now pushing and shoving inside the container, several other dozens had already made it outside. Some stumbled in the crowd, fell down, got picked up. They didn’t think something serious could happen, but it was better to get out just in case. Someone would put out that flame, they might even go back inside the club, have a drink with their buddies, and then the guys would take their places back on stage. Those who knew them would poke fun at them. “See, Pascu, you couldn’t even pull off one concert.” They kept screaming louder and louder. They screamed to tell others not to push and they screamed that everyone keep calm. Friends were holding each other’s hands tightly. The tension was mounting and some had started to panic. The only open door was slowly spitting people out — in ones and twos — and some stumbled over its threshold and fell outside, face down.
Mircea had Emma wrapped up in his arms from behind. He called out, asking her to hold on, there were people on the floor. But they were both feeling like their bodies were boneless, they were very faint, couldn’t feel themselves move; the crowd was carrying them onward. It was getting hotter and hotter.
Grigoriu was close to the door. He turned around and looked over the shoving bodies and saw the flame climb to the ceiling. “There goes the guys’ gig ”, he told himself with regret.
The flame latched onto the foam covering the ceiling. It had been washed that summer with some cleaning product. No one could remember what it was precisely, but the fire climbed up and rolled ravenously across it. It rolled straight ahead, toward the exit, and toward the stage as if the foam were gasoline or gunpowder. The lively, yellow flames were like neon lights. At this point, only the foam underneath the wooden joists of the ceiling was burning. The boards peeked out from under it as if they were trying to escape.
Monica hadn’t even gotten round to putting her beer down when she took the first steps toward the exit. She knew she had to get out. Ţelea would be fine; she could see him on stage next to Găluţ. She moved forward, along with the people she’d been watching the concert with, but got stuck one meter before the container. The crowd was getting increasingly compact and Monica was having trouble breathing because of the rush.
Delia made sure that her husband and their son in the “BOO!” t-shirt were behind her. Her husband had grabbed the little one’s hand and in an exchange of glances had silently agreed that they leave. They were two-three steps behind Delia when she turned around again and couldn’t see them anymore. The crowd swept her off her feet and she felt violently pulled forward and stuck to the inner wall of the container, right next to the closed door.
A few meters behind, the air was heating up and the fire continued to spread across the foam on the ceiling. Some 30 seconds had elapsed since the sparks had lit up the pillar, and the ceiling was burning so intensely that bits of flaming foam projectiles had started to pour down. They stuck to the people crushed on their way to the exit. There was almost no one left in the middle of the club as the funnel of people toward the door was constantly fed. Some had withdrawn to the bathroom.
Someone was trying to pass through the crowd, tripod in hand. Someone else pulled a hood over their face. Two or three people were carrying cameras. Others were filming with their phones. They were making their way ahead, pressed up against the wall so that burning foam wouldn’t trickle down onto them. They were trying to cover their heads. They’d been caught, glasses and bottles still in hand. They were pushing. It was getting hotter. They were screaming.
“Get out, get out, get out!”
“I’m dying, man, I’m dying!”
“Go, go, go!”
They reached the container, but they could barely see. They fell. They tripped over those who had already fallen. They climbed over each other. They screamed. Some flung themselves into the cloakroom for shelter. Others had gotten to the point where they were crawling. It was getting hotter. Delia was still stuck, nearly flattened onto the container wall with the door to her left, when she felt someone pushing her toward the exit. The double exit door was getting closer and closer, but its right side was still stuck. Suddenly, though, right in front of Delia, the second door was also released, slamming into the outer wall of the container with a terrible thud. Delia was projected outside by the pushing crowd. She was hoping the boys wouldn’t be far behind. She took two or three steps, then felt something envelop her. She felt the stockings on her legs melt. She took a deep breath and felt it burn all the way down to her stomach. She felt that her hair had caught fire. She instinctively took her hand to her head to put it out and felt a burn. There was a roaring. Then, darkness.
Phone to his ear, Gabriel Popescu had turned left immediately after he came out of the container and had withdrawn to the area where the foosball table had stood during the summer. It was a small recess with a gate that opened into to a sort of storage room. The club had gotten hot before he came out and he felt the nape of his neck burning. The 112 dispatcher asked him what his emergency was.
“This is an emergency, we need firemen at club Colectiv! Something’s on fire, there’s a concert, there’s a fire inside.”
The dispatcher asked him for the address and, for a second, Popescu couldn’t remember the street name. There were others who’d gone out and withdrawn there, so he tapped a guy on the shoulder and asked. The moment he heard “Tă…”, he remembered: “Tăbăcarilor.”
“Are there people trapped inside?”
“Yes, yes, yes, it’s terrible, what just happened!”
From his safe space, Popescu could see people coming out of the container as if they were exiting a black hole. Some fell because of the step at the threshold of the entrance. Others stumbled on their feet, either down the corridor to the inner courtyard, or to the place Popescu was standing. He could see them by the yellow glow of the strings of lights.
He heard screams from inside.
He saw the closed double glazed door crash forcefully into the container wall, spitting even more people out. It crossed his mind that the wave of oxygen would stoke the fire even more. He heard the roar and saw a flame, a few meters long, burst out from the container. The whole yard was suddenly lit up, then the flame disappeared just as suddenly. Black smoke gargled out from inside the container, a stifling cloud, which started to spread.
Popescu was telling the dispatcher to hurry, he told her again this was terrible. There was smoke, there were people with serious burns. “How many?” the dispatcher asked. He couldn’t see the container too clearly, so he counted the ones headed toward him. One, two, three… The dispatcher told him the intervention teams had started on their way. He was on the phone for a few more minutes, providing them with details. He was frenzied and trying to figure out what had happened, although he could barely see anything. The foam had caught fire, there was smoke, it might be toxic, maybe something had exploded, how many were trapped inside? He wondered. He told the dispatchers that he was heading for the container and that the entrance was a bloody mess.
“There are burned people, lots of burned people!”
“Please try to count how many people require medical assistance.”
“At least 20!”
He asked them to hurry again because he hadn’t ever seen anything like this before, but the dispatcher told him again that the teams were on their way and that he should call 112 if anything changed.
Emma and Mircea were standing next to Popescu. They’d managed to take cover before the flame lashed out at those still trapped in the doorframe. Fumbling through the fog, Emma saw a girl with burn lesions and got so scared she could’ve run through a brick wall. She told herself she needed to stay calm because this was only the beginning. Mircea noticed a petite redhead, whose hair was half burned, clothes in tatters, walking like a zombie, shaking, and only saying that she was scared. Emma took her in her arms and told her it would all be okay, it would all be okay. Then, she told Mircea they couldn’t stay there, that they need to go into the inner courtyard — the corridor was the only way out, even if it was pitch dark. They pulled their t-shirts over their mouths, Emma caught up with the redhead, and they started through the smoke.
The corridor was teeming with fumbling people. The architecture professor who’d come to see her former students was slowly walking on, straight ahead. She wasn’t running, afraid she’d fall face down and get trampled on. She’d seen the tongue of fire behind her, and found herself enveloped in the smoke that was eating up all the oxygen in her lungs, like the dementors in Harry Potter. She figured she had to stop breathing until she walked out into the inner courtyard.
There were 25 meters, at most, between the container and the courtyard, but all the spatial guide marks had vanished. People were feeling their way along the wall, fallen, leaning, with smoke coming out of them, or trying to put out the flames in their hair, on their backs. They no longer knew where they were or where they were headed. They were guiding themselves by the screams or the moans. They were smashing into the walls or each other.
Lupu was trying to breathe in the tar-tainted air. His eyes were sore and he was slowly ambling through the darkness. It was as if someone had pushed a gigantic switch and turned off all the sources of light. An inner voice guided him saying, “walk on, walk on”. After entire seconds of fumbling, he started to get a clearer picture. He rushed toward the light and realized he had reached the end of the corridor, the inner courtyard. He coughed, spat out black stuff, and noticed his beard and a strand of his bangs had been burned. He saw his Days of Confusion mates close by. There were many others who had gotten out and reached that point: there was Iancu, the young guy with the Salam cover, there was Adi Despot, there was Zamfir, leaning against a car, and there were Emma and Mircea.
Emma walked over to Zamfir and took him in her arms. Zamfir was shaking, could barely stand, had lost his backpack in the crowd, one of his sneakers was missing, and he had a small burn on his left ear. “It’s going to be all right,” Emma told him. “It’s going to be all right.”
The smoke was very slowly clearing. Delia was fumbling about, looking for her family. After the smoke had swallowed her, she’d reached out and grabbed onto someone in a jacket, who’d stepped in ahead of her; without it, she wouldn’t have managed to keep on going. She had seen a boy with burns on his face, wearing a white t-shirt with nothing left but the sleeves and collar. Another boy was running, his ankle in flames. Her husband and son were neither among the dozens of people leaning against the walls, nor among the burn victims roaming about in a daze. Delia walked over to the inner courtyard, but, when she couldn’t find them there either, decided to go back. She made her way back down the corridor, through the wounded until she reached the entrance to the container, where people were piled up on top of each other, inside the container, in front of it, in two or three layers. It was a mess of burnt and smoking bodies, of which some were still moving or holding out their hands to be released. Other bodies, some nearly naked, others in flames, were falling onto them from inside the container. Delia tried to help a girl with long, black hair, whose legs were trapped underneath everyone else, her torso outside and arms outreached, struggling to keep her head propped up. Around her, others were asking to remove those on top first. She went on looking for her own, all in a daze, until she saw her husband. He was covered in soot and his eyes were red. He was bent over, his hands on his knees, panting, coughing, and spitting. Then, he collapsed onto his rear, next to a wall. The boy was standing next to him, his face blackened as well, but unscathed. Delia took him in her arms and asked him, as she looked into his eyes:
“Are you alright?”
“I thought we were going to die.”
While they were still behind Delia, they had got caught up in the funnel of the crowd into the shipping container. The father feared that his son would get trampled, so he pulled him into the cloakroom where they lay on the floor alongside others and covered their faces with the jackets. Then it got dark and the air got hotter and hotter. A muted roar passed over them, and, all of a sudden, a black smoke also entered the cloakroom. The father realized they wouldn’t last in there for too long. He tried to get out, but the air was so hot he couldn’t breathe. He tried to light their way with the phone, but to no avail. They stayed buried in jackets for a little while longer and then started again. There was a pile of fallen people by the door, so the father hoisted his son over them and someone outside took his hand and pulled him out. He then climbed over the pile of people and got out as well.
There was chaos and smoke and just about all of them had lost track of time. Grigoriu also returned to the entrance to the container, where several people were trying to disentangle the pile of bodies. They were feeling their way through and around the container and whenever they felt something soft, they reached inside and pulled. Grigoriu felt they were pulling too hard and said, “Hold on, we’re going to break his arms.” “No, it’s ok, keep pulling,” a voice called back. Those at the bottom were stuck and they were tough to get out.
The ones they did get out, those of them who felt up for it, stuck around to help unclog the container, make room for the authorities, who would be able to reach deeper inside the club, where there were still people left. They carried the severely burned a few meters away and laid them down against the sides of the corridor, on the kerb, on pallets, and even on some beer crates they’d found in the storage room. One girl had been left with no clothes on. She was conscious, but burnt to such an extent that she couldn’t sit. Popescu took off his black, short-sleeved shirt and covered her up. Another girl asked him to take her hair out of her eyes. When he looked at her, he saw her eyes were white and her hair completely burnt. He asked her to calm down, the ambulance would be there, and they’d go to the hospital. “You’ll be all right.”
Mircea had also returned to the container. As he approached the pile, he saw a black-lipped girl foaming at the mouth. He tried to pull a burnt man and his hand slid, stained with the soot. A boy climbed out of the pile. His back was bare, and a piece of molten foam still burned on it. Grigoriu and Popescu started carrying someone away when Popescu recognized the writer-musician. He’d listened to Rising Shadow in high school and liked them. “This is some way of meeting you,” he said.
A little over ten minutes had passed since the first 112 calls, when two police officers from Precinct no. 4 showed up. One of them had only started on the job three months back and was terrified by what he saw. They asked for back up and started to help carry the wounded.
Monica was looking at the bodies blocking the exit. It was horrific. She kept seeing people emerge from somewhere within the darkness of the container, others picked up from the pile, till it was cleared. She was waiting to see her husband, Ţelea. She had also called 112 and was told other calls had already been made. She couldn’t focus on anyone — she was only hoping he would emerge. She was pacing up and down in front of the container, next to a young man who was waiting to see his girlfriend. That’s how the first three firemen to arrive at the scene found them. They’d rushed in from the square, since they couldn’t come in with the truck, because of all the randomly parked cars. They had seen the whole inner courtyard, and one of them thought that if so many had already managed to get out in one piece, then the fire must not have been that bad.
They entered the corridor and saw dozens of the wounded, scattered, blackened, burnt, smoke coming out of some. Then they reached the bodies by the entrance to the container. To make their way inside, they moved them both to the left and to the right, with the help of those at the scene.
The man looking for his girlfriend kept yelling, “My girlfriend is inside, my girlfriend is inside.” He was asking the firemen to go in after her, he would call her and they’d follow the sound of the ringtone, walk toward wherever the phone was ringing. Monica also told them there were people left inside, they should head to the left, toward the stage. That was where she’d last seen her husband.
When they walked in, masks on their faces, clothes and pieces of other materials were still burning. The smoke was so thick they could barely see a few centimeters ahead. Their flashlights were useless. They walked slowly, dragging their feet; they risked walking into a body with every step. They thought of the guy calling his girlfriend, but how could they tell which phone was hers? In the pitch darkness inside the club, dozens of ringtones were buzzing from all directions. Moans could be heard, too; someone told them they were still alive. The firemen would pick someone up and then feel the person’s hands sliding out of their skin. One of them locked eyes with a victim. They started taking them outside, with the help of other firemen who had caught up with them. They found people in the club, the cloakroom, the bathroom — some had been burnt by fire itself, while others, like those in the bathroom, had been intoxicated by the chemicals that emanated from the burning foam. They lost track — they were finding-removing, finding-removing. When their tank was emptied, they went out to replace it with a new one, and then went back inside. They found the guy’s girlfriend and brought her out and, at a certain point, they also found Ţelea.
When they brought him out, Monica tried to wake him, but he was unconscious.
She looked around dumbfounded and kept hoping the doctors would get there, any minute now. There weren’t too many people left around the container. At some point, two men picked him up and started carrying him down the corridor, then through the inner courtyard, toward the square. Monica thought the distance, barely 125 meters, was endless.
Meanwhile, Bucur Square had filled up with ambulances and other intervention vehicles. The police officers, riot police, and people who lived in the area had picked up the cars in the square and moved them to make room. Several ambulances were already full, their doors were closed, and they were getting ready to leave. They placed Ţelea on the pavement next to another casualty. Monica was on her knees. Another friend of Ţelea’s had come by her side. They were both waiting. A fireman started giving him CPR. Then, one of the paramedics joined him: chest pumps, ventilation masks, adrenaline shots. At a certain point, Monica was told that Ţelea was in cardiac arrest. Monica asked if this was a good thing. The woman said no. His heart wasn’t pumping blood to any of the organs and there was no brain activity. Monica started shaking and felt her mouth go dry — not even she could tell if it was from the smoke or the shock. They wrapped her up in a golden protective sheet. The ambulance woman went on trying to resuscitate him, but at some point she stopped.
“It’s a death.”
The square was full. Over 20 intervention vehicles had arrived by 11pm and the area looked like a warzone hospital, lit up in blue-and-red beacons. Casualties, survivors, doctors, nurses, volunteers, ambulance drivers, neighbors, riot police, police officers, firemen, friends of the victims, parents, journalists everywhere.
At 10:56pm, Popescu had posted to Facebook, “Guys, it’s a disaster at Colectiv!!!” and after 11pm, the TV stations were already broadcasting live, some of them from the scene. The hospitals had gone on alert. There was chaos and commotion, and no one knew exactly what had happened.
Immediately after they arrived at the scene, the first ambulance and emergency service crews called for backup. Soon enough, the intervention was switched to “red plan”, which means an event whose magnitude has surpassed the capacity of the first intervention teams. There were many wounded, a disproportionately large number compared to how many they could offer medical care to, or get onto ambulances. And they kept coming in, carried in the arms of those who had been inside the club — people like Lupu, Popescu, Despot, riot police, officers. Emma, Mircea and others were running around from one casualty to the next to see how they could help them, prop them up to get them to the ambulances, encourage them. Many of those who’d escaped refused to leave and were either helping or glued to their phones. A nurse from the nearby maternity ward saw the commotion down in the square from the balcony, so she told her ward colleagues that she had to go down to deliver aide and help out. Nurses, caregivers, and doctors in robes and slippers came down to the square bringing cannulas, sterile swabs, rubbing alcohol, gauze, and mobile respirators.
Visibility was low. The patients’ hands were burnt and the doctors were struggling to find their veins to hook them up to IVs. Popescu asked them what else they needed and they said, “light,” so he took out his phone and turned on the flashlight. He saw the stretchers to the ambulances, spoke to the wounded, put their phones back into their pockets when they fell out. He kept asking what else he could help with: “defibrillator,” they told him.
He was going from ambulance to ambulance looking for someone to help, when a nurse asked him to help her take off the leather jacket of a man tossing and turning. He held the man by the head, to help keep him from getting hurt even worse. He was burnt raw and on the point of closing his eyes. The nurse told him to keep him talking, keep him from falling asleep. “Don’t fall asleep, stay with me!” Popescu told him and the man blinked his blue eyes meaning that he understood.
There were people on gurneys improvised from pallets. There were bodies they’d already lost, stretched out on the asphalt. There were people crammed into ambulances where they were being bandaged with special compresses to soothe the burns. The young man who had been looking for his girlfriend was trying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to help her, while a fireman was rhythmically pressing down on her sternum. Another fireman had brought in the burned, but conscious boy in the wheelchair. An ambulance volunteer was dressing wounds, embracing those in a state of shock, as well as the families and friends who had come looking for them. He’d headed there as soon as his phone started to pile up with notifications. Whenever someone calls 112, the call is recorded, an ambulance or emergency service vehicle is dispatched, and all the volunteers on a one-kilometer radius get an alert. The volunteer kept receiving them: 20 year-old girls, 15 year-old boys, 40 year-old men. The app was telling him they’re 100 to 300 meters away, all of them in critical condition.
Some were leaving in cabs with friends who had come to pick them up. For others, places were being sought in the recently arrived ambulances. Emma and Mircea asked for blankets, asked the neighbors for water, asked the wounded for their names , their ages, and if they’d told their parents. Many were in shock and just told them, “Help me. Water. Air, air. Help me.”
At some point, a young man, his face blackened, his lashes, mustache, and goatee burnt, asked Emma for water. She tried to find some, but couldn’t and went back to tell him. The young man told her, “If you don’t have any money, I’ll give it to you. I can’t reach inside my pocket, you do it.” He then asked her to lift his t-shirt, so she could see how burnt he was, and asked her if his face was burnt, too. Emma didn’t answer. He then told her, “I guess I won’t be doing that cover with Mircea any time soon.”
Emma realized it was Alexandru Iancu, with whom they’d cajoled earlier about the Salam cover. Someone gave them a bottle of water and Emma helped him rinse his mouth. Iancu was very polite and conscious. He kept telling her, “I want a bit more water, please. Can I have some more water, please?”
He started to shake and Emma asked him if he was cold. He told her no. Emma went looking for a blanket or a protective sheet among the ambulance staff. In one of the cars there were three burnt people with open wounds. She didn’t enter, just asked them for a safety blanket, which she placed over Iancu, but he was unable to hold it. The skin on his hands was coming off.
Grigoriu had called Ţelea and Pascu several times, but hadn’t gotten any answer. He stood in the square, monitoring the stretchers that were coming out to the ambulances, hoping to see them. He made calls, asked around, but at some point was defeated by the cold. He hadn’t gotten his jacket from the cloakroom and was only in a t-shirt. He started on his way home, making and answering one call after the next, trying to get more information, something. Someone told him Pascu was already at the hospital. Someone else informed him Ţelea was gone.
Lupu and Despot carried casualties out of the club until the authorities no longer allowed them inside the factory yard, until more and more of the ambulances had left for the hospital, until the square filled up with members of the press and news. They wanted to share a taxi, but no one would take them, so the police pulled a car over for them. Lupu got home, the no. 202 cloakroom ticket in his pocket, thinking about how since he was 14 years old, he’d been playing with and risking his life in clubs, and how that night, death had passed him by and told him, “No, you get to stay.”
After midnight, over 150 wounded had already been taken to several hospitals around Bucharest in ambulances, cabs, or their friends’ cars. Some of the wounded had no form of ID, and the doctors were having trouble identifying them. Parents, brothers, sisters, lovers, and colleagues had started looking, sometimes without even knowing what hospital they’d end up at, and without knowing if they were instead headed for the morgue.
The first official announcements on how many had died were made by State Secretary Raed Arafat and Interior Minister Gabriel Oprea right from the square: first 25, around 12:10am, then 26, less than 30 minutes later. Some criminologists had also arrived and started investigations. One of them asked Popescu if he’d been ID-ed and asked him to go get his statement taken. He told them what he knew. They told him he was lucky to be alive, and then brought him back. There were still police officers and riot police in the square, but the medical intervention had ended. The pavement was covered in remains: I.V. lines, needle wrappers, syringes, gauze, and other medical paraphernalia. Popescu opened his car, put on the jacket he’d left inside, and started on his way home. Having calmed down a bit, Mircea called his sister to tell her he was fine. He and Emma started home on foot, and only then did they realize how cold they were. They hailed a cab that was already full, but the driver let them in after they said they just wanted to warm up. They thought they probably reeked horribly of smoke. The cab driver told them he had taken a guy to Colectiv that night. “What happened to that poor sap, I wonder?” he asked them. “Think he made it?”
Once home, sometime after midnight, they went into the living room. They took their laptops and their phones and started talking to people. Lists of names had started to circulate and were causing confusion — it was unclear which were casualties and which were the ones who made it. They especially wanted to know what had happened to the couple they’d shared a table with. They found the man on one of the lists. He’d been taken to a hospital. The woman was nowhere to be found and wasn’t answering any calls.
They recounted the evening, the people they’d met, the decision to leave the club, and how in the world they’d moved so fast. They thought it was unbelievable that they’d stuck next to each other and that, amid all the panic, they managed to stay close. When one had said something, the other reacted. Their motions, thoughts and words had all been in sync.
Somewhere around 4am, the official death toll reached 27. After a short while, a friend wrote to Mircea to tell him that the woman from the couple had also died.
They were tired and still clogged with smoke, but they knew they had to sleep. Mircea saw the black soot stain on his left hand from when he’d pulled someone out of the pile. They turned off the light. Before falling asleep, they did what they had always done and still do. They told each other, “I love you,”“sleep tight,” and Mircea took Emma in his arms and held her tighter than he’d ever held someone in his life. They knew there was nothing they could do. They knew their powers had been exhausted. They knew they had to sleep. They had no plans for the following day, except to go on making phone calls and trying to find out what had happened the previous night at Colectiv.
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