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At Spanish Disco Where Fire Killed 13, Grief and Unanswered Questions

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At midday Monday, a 22-year-old man walked out of Police Headquarters in the city of Murcia near the Mediterranean Coast of Spain with head bowed. He had hoped to get information about his half brother, who did not make it home after a fire raged through a popular disco complex on the outskirts of town a day earlier, claiming at least 13 lives.

But the Murcia City Police had a question of their own: Could the missing man’s father and three young children provide DNA samples that might help identify the victim?

“They said it might take days to clear up,” said the half brother, Cristopher Miranda. “I’m devastated.”

A few hours earlier, the City Council had released a statement saying it would file a criminal complaint against one of the two nightclubs destroyed by the fire, Teatre, S.L., accusing it of operating without a license after ignoring an order to close in January 2022.

“We are facing an unprecedented tragedy, and we are going to act forcefully to determine responsibilities,” the deputy mayor of urban planning, Antonio Navarro, said at a news conference.

Speaking to reporters outside the charred complex on Monday evening, a lawyer for one of the clubs that burned, La Fonda Milagros — which shared the space with Teatre, denied the city’s accusations. “My clients were not aware of any order to close,” said the lawyer, Francisco Adán.

The area where the disaster unfolded had once been popular for nightlife. Twenty-five years ago, it was known for discos and karaoke bars that drew crowds celebrating occasions like university graduations, said Jesús Jiménez, president of the Regional Federation of Hospitality and Tourism. But in recent years, many of those establishments have closed down.

Mr. Jiménez said that the Teatre club, popular for birthday parties, had been operating illegally for months. The owners divided it into two nightclubs, Teatre and La Fonda, he said.

All 13 bodies recovered from the debris by firefighters on Sunday were found in La Fonda, where flames had ripped through the upper floor and caused the roof to collapse.

Mr. Jiménez said there was blame to go around.

“The owners have committed a crime, and the authorities have been negligent for not verifying the closure of the establishment,” he said.

On Monday, it was still unsafe for detectives and forensic investigators to enter the ruins of the Teatre-La Fonda complex, according to Diego Seral, a spokesman for the national police. “Possible criminal responsibilities and the cause of the fire will be determined once there is a guarantee that the remaining infrastructures are safe,” he said.

A bartender from a nearby nightclub who was surveying the ruins said the full seriousness of what had happened the night before was not immediately apparent. The bartender, Melania Bernal, 26, who works at the Kallejon, a few dozen yards away from the Teatre-La Fonda complex, recalled the lights going out and her building being evacuated, but she said at first she thought it was just a power outage.

“When I went outside and saw the flames, I was frightened,” she said.

The authorities quickly set up a center to support the families of those missing at the Murcia Sports Pavilion. On Monday morning, Dubis Reyes, the mother of one of them, went there in search of information.

“My son is still missing,” she said.

Ms. Reyes said she had not heard from her son, Yosi Esteban Rivero Reyes, 34, since Sunday morning. She was heading next to Police Headquarters to explain that she believed her son had been carrying her nephew’s wallet, which she thought might have caused confusion.

At the police station, families were bringing in personal objects like toothbrushes to help the authorities identify the victims. So far, only four of the 13 bodies recovered had been identified through fingerprints. DNA samples from those who cannot be identified that way will be sent to the National Institute of Toxicology for analysis.

A stream of family members went in and out on Monday morning, arriving and leaving in taxis organized by the City Council. Shortly after midday, as a group left the building and got into a waiting taxi, one of the women, supported by two younger men, was in tears.

Mr. Miranda said his half brother Rafael, a 37-year-old balloon factory worker, had been celebrating a friend’s birthday at the club. “All of them are missing, all eight of them,” he said.

He was met at the doors by two of his father’s friends who had come to offer their support. “It’s just not believable, a thing of these dimensions,” said one of the friends, Diego Merchan, 46, who is an agricultural worker.

With a population of just under half a million, Murcia is Spain’s seventh-largest city. Its main industries are agriculture and tourism

Now, a city where residents sometimes boast of having the most hours of sunshine on the Spanish mainland has declared three days of mourning. Its mayor has ordered the flags at the City Council lowered to half-staff.

Wearing a dark suit and black tie, Mayor José Ballesta met somberly with local police and fire chiefs at the disaster area on Monday morning and warned that the death toll might rise. Of the 18 people reported missing on Sunday, only three have been found alive.

The Spanish news media has widely published a video of a father playing an audio his daughter sent to her mother from the club at 6:06 Sunday morning.

“Mami,” the daughter can be heard saying, “I love you. We’re going to die.”

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