On this day in 1984, a huge explosion destroys a shantytown in Brazil, killing at least 500 people, mostly young children. An investigation into the disaster later revealed that the true death count was impossible to know because so many bodies had in effect been cremated in the intense blaze.
The shantytown in Cubatao, 30 miles southeast of Sao Paulo, was known as the Vila Soco favela. Approximately 9,000 people had set up makeshift homes on land that was owned by Petrobas, the state-run oil monopoly. Gas pipelines operated by Petrobas ran next to the slum. When workers opened the wrong pipeline on February 24, highly combustible octane gas poured into the ditches of Vila Soco. Soon after midnight, an explosion was sparked, and a fireball ripped through the favela. Some homes were literally thrown hundreds of feet into the air; others were instantly incinerated. The temperature at the heart of the fireball was estimated at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
A day later, only 86 bodies had been recovered. None of the remains were of children below the age of seven, though investigators later found that more than 300 children aged three to six had been enrolled in a local school prior to the explosion and that only 60 were known to be alive. Coroner Affonso Figueiredo reported, “Since whole families were killed, there was no one to report the children’s death or disappearance.” It is believed that more than 500 people in all were killed.
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