At 22:32, The Evil That Men Do ended with two beats of the drum and Galut (Andrei Galut was the lead singer of Goodbye to Gravity) 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 (Alex Pascu was the bass player of GtG) and Galut jokingly called out, ‘Happy anniversary!’ Telea and Alexandru (Vlad Telea and Mihai Alexandru were both guitarists for GtG) walked over to the sides of the stage to switch guitars. Galut 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’, Galut 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. Telea 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 Galut. 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 dialled 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 Galut 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 just acted 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, a dozen others 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 should 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. Telea would be fine; she could see him on stage next to Galut. 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 or three steps behind her 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 being 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!’ ‘Don’t panic!’ ‘Easy, man!’ ‘No pushing!’
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 thrown 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.
An open wound
The Colectiv club fire not only sparked overwhelming emotion, but also protests, resignations, arrests, pub shutdowns, and public quarrels over the proficiency of the 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. Yet, this version of the story, raw as it is, had to be told first.
This is the shortened version of this article; the full article is available on the website of the European Press Prize – europeanpressprize.com.