A 25-story skyscraper in the entire historic center of São Paulo engulfed in fire. People throwing themselves out of windows in free fall, in a desperate attempt to escape with their lives. This portrait of horror illustrates the tragedy of the Joelma Building, on February 1, 1974. Lesly Theiny Beisahattnow 75 years old, was one of the people to jump from the burning building.
The second worst skyscraper fire in the world, the fire started with a short circuit in an air conditioner, leaving at least 187 dead and 300 injured. Beisahatt was in the building with six other family members and 60 colleagues from the circus where they worked to regularize their documentation in Brazil. The only survivor of the family, she jumped from the fourth floor and later spent a year and eight months in a coma.
Below, Beisahatt, who today remains in Brazil and works as an Ayurvedic masseuse, details her experience during the tragedy that marked the country:
“I’m a Hindu, Indian circus artist, my family and I came to Brazil when I was 13 years old to work in a circus in São Paulo. My mother was a juggler and lived on a tightrope. My father was a knife thrower. My grandfather was in the globe of death. My job was to be the little girl who smiled while my father threw knives around me.
At the time of the fire I was 24 years old. In the Joelma Building there was a place where foreigners went to obtain documentation. That’s why we were there.
Just from the circus, a lot of people died. There were more than 60 people and 11 remained. Of the six people in my family, only I survived.
We were on the fourth floor of the building. The fire was coming from top to bottom. It was a strong smell of burning rubber, of kerosene. The fire was spreading through the walls, due to the building’s paint dissolved in kerosene.
When we saw through the window that it was on fire, we ran to the stairs. But when we got there, there were already a lot of people dead on the steps, poisoned by the smoke. So we went back and tried to enter a room, which was closed. They didn’t want to let us in, but they managed to break down the door and we went in.
There were already a lot of people inside. Many burned people, screaming in pain, injured women. There was a person in agony in the corner, trying to hang himself. And someone else trying to save her. The firefighters helped a lot. They wet cloths, took off their own clothes so we could breathe on the fabric. We had angels there.
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People desperately wanted to go to the window, but no one wanted to jump to their death. We wanted to live. People were jumping because they couldn’t handle the smoke. There were a lot of people but little window space.
Everyone was trying to jump. There were very strong men wanting to get there first, so you had to fight to get there. There were already a lot of people dead on the ground. People held our legs to go first. It’s not like the Titanic. It was much more terrifying. The people around me were dead, being trampled on. I saw 18 people jumping. Some survived the jump.
People were suffocating to death inside the rooms. It was tumultuous and filled with people. They broke the windows with everything they had, fire extinguishers, trash cans. What killed us was the smoke. There was a lot of black smoke with the smell of fuel.
There was fire on the furniture and sheets of paint were falling, dissolving like nail polish. The plates fell on people, so they caught fire. It was a horror film.
My grandfather managed to find a place for me at the window and told me: “Jump and live”. He wrapped my head with the shirt he was wearing because of the strong smell. I saw he fell dead.
My uncle was the first in the family to jump, my grandfather made my grandmother jump and I was third. Only I survived.
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As there were people pulling me, I jumped on my back and woke up after a year and eight months. A firefighter later told me that they put me in a bag, thinking I was dead. But the dog started to smell me, so he opened the bag and I started breathing. The dog saved my life.
When I woke up from the coma, I was at Santa Casa, in São Paulo. When I woke up, I saw that I was in a bed, there was a lot of bandages on my body. The first skin burned a lot. They put fish skin on me to regenerate. I remember the smell of rotten fish.
I woke up without knowing anything about what had happened. I didn’t know what a glass or a brick was. It took me years without understanding anything. It took me about three years, with medical, psychological treatment and religious assistance, to recover.
The hospital staff already knew what had happened and were telling me, but I couldn’t assimilate it. When I started to come back to myself, it was the worst nightmare. Years later I found myself, I understood who I was.
From the hospital, I went to live at the Instituto Tide Setubal, which served as a hostel. I had no one, no other acquaintances in Brazil. At the institute I also studied, I took a technical course. They took care of me and I managed to restructure myself.
I have some scars on my body, but the first skin grows back. The sequel that remains in my mind is that I can no longer write. When I start, I soon forget what I was writing.
I lost my grandparents, my parents, my uncle, another relative, and we don’t even have a record in history. What I have as a family today are my twin sons, a youngest daughter and five grandchildren. The important thing is to start over. I work with Ayurvedic massage and help people. I recovered. But sometimes I sit in front of my house, in São Paulo, and I think, in disbelief: look where I came from, where I am now and what I’ve been through…”