The tragic legacy of KISS
Santa Maria, Brazil
By Ricardo Moraes
It was an unforgettable end to enormous pain and a ravaged mind. The last day of coverage of one of Brazil’s greatest tragedies touched me so much that I’m only going to tell how the story ended.
The morning of January 30, 2013, I met a woman who was devastated, confused, and completely lost inside of herself – wounded to the heart.
The first contact with her was moving. We arrived at a building on the outskirts of Santa Maria and knocked on the door of apartment 121, on which there was a message left by children offering help and consolation for a woman named Gelsa. In spite of the obvious clue that inside lived the mother of a disaster victim, we hadn’t reached that place by chance; we were led there by Carlos, a friend of Gelsa, the woman whose small family had now been reduced to just one, herself.
Gelsa Barcellos opened the door dressed in her nightclothes, her hair in a mess and looking confused. She was lost. Carlos introduced us as journalists wanting to know the story of her son, Joao, who died three days earlier. Gelsa invited us to come in with an apology for the state of her home.
“Please excuse the mess, but I live alone.”
I was confused by her statement, but then she completed it. “My son doesn’t live here anymore, and I’m trying to pick up the pieces.”
I stood still, looking around the home that had fallen apart. We explained that we wished to interview her, and she invited us to sit down. We sat for a few uncomfortable moments, until she realized that she wasn’t dressed. She went to dress and came back wearing clothes that were Joao’s. She hung around her neck the plastic credential that her son wore at parties to identify his website in which he used to publish photos and publicize the parties of Santa Maria. He was at the Kiss club that fatal night, taking more pictures to post on the site.
She spoke in broken phrases, appearing medicated, groggy. She was preoccupied with her appearance, and repeated, “Joao was always well-groomed, he wanted me to be pretty, I can’t appear so horrible on television.”
She described her son as a working boy who from a young age fought for his dreams. He had been very proud of his website and his social status in the city, as a party boy, a boy of the night.
Gelsa showed us his room, with photos of him on the wall. She seemed to fade while talking of him, but the friend who had brought us to her apartment, Carlos, helped to keep her focused. She sat to give the interview, repeating questions to us about how she should act and fussing with her hair, saying again that Joao always wanted it to be dyed and groomed.
Gelsa responded to our questions in a confused way, mixing different subjects, but she had her mantra. “He died happy, he loved that nightclub, he was a hero, he died doing what he loved most.”
During the interview the telephone rang, and she answered repeating her mantra to a friend who called to comfort her. Gelsa told her that she had been sleeping in her son’s bed, which was bigger than hers.
She followed that with another confusing statement, this time with a smile. “Do you know who is here? A team of journalists. Joao is going to be famous! He always wanted to be famous.”
The interview continued, and she spoke more about her boy, about what he did for her, that he wanted to make her a wealthy woman, successful. As she described him, Carlos couldn’t hold back the tears.
Gelsa described how she found out about Joao’s death, and that when she arrived at the gymnasium where the victims’ remains were taken she felt as if she were living a Hollywood movie. She appeared strong and when they asked her if she was ready to identify her son’s body, she answered, “I have to be. I carried him nine months inside my womb, his father died when he was just eight, the least I can do is bury my own son.”
At the end of our interview we talked a little, and Gelsa told me that she no longer needed to take care of herself, now that she no longer had Joao. She would let her hair fade to grey. We suggested that she take care of herself in the same way that Joao wanted, that he would be happy if she was well. We told her that life isn’t over, but it was difficult for me to look at her home, the emptiness and the mess.
Carlos invited Gelsa to lunch at his home, and she responded, “It’s not necessary. Joao cooked for me. He knows that I can’t cook anything, and left food ready for me.”
Each embrace with her was a long one, as if it were a necessity for her. In spite of the talk about her son, his death, and how her future would be, she didn’t cry at any time during our conversation. But she did when we hugged her upon leaving. A strong embrace from someone who didn’t want to let go.
January 27, 2013, will be forever engraved in the history of Brazil, and especially in that of Santa Maria, a city of 300,000 inhabitants. It was a day that moved people around the world with a nightclub disaster that killed more than 230 people, most of them college students.
Out of so many lost lives, grieving mothers, embraces and goodbyes, one will always stay with me.