Tragedy in the Vulture's Nest: The preventable death of 10 rising stars at Flamengo

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Fifteen-year-old Christian Esmerio's funeral on a 95 degree Sunday packed the humble chapel at Rio's Iraja cemetery well beyond capacity, with photographers and television crews jostling for space along cracked sidewalks.

Burials in front of the media are rare here. Most people laid to rest are fameless residents of the working-class suburbs, where Esmerio was born to a 20-year-old recent high school graduate and a 23-year-old street vendor. But Esmerio, a goalkeeper, already had earned strong predictors of fame in his country. His agility between the posts -- he was "a monster," according to a former youth soccer teammate, and was blessed with "good positioning and reflexes," according to Rio State Football Federation announcer Leandro Mamute -- had earned him a spot on Brazil's youth national team, a photo opportunity with Brazilian head coach Tite and attention from scouts at European clubs.

"He had all of the credentials," Mamute said, "to be called up for the Brazilian national team in his own time."

The vehicle for Esmerio's rise was the youth academy at Flamengo soccer club in Rio, neck and neck with Sao Paulo's Palmeiras as the highest-earning club in Brazil. Like those at other top Brazilian teams, Flamengo's youth academy houses some players as young as 14 at training facilities, with the option to contract them when they turn 16.

On Feb. 8, Flamengo's youth dormitory at its training center in Rio caught fire, killing 10 players (including Esmerio) and injuring three others on the youth team. More than 20 boys had been housed together in conjoined, modular units totaling roughly 1,200 square feet that had just a single exit. It was a structure that had never had a fire inspection.

The procession of more than 300 people through the cemetery to bury Esmerio already displayed the contradictions about the club's role in the tragedy. Some of those attending wore Flamengo jerseys and sang the club anthem in between Christian hymns. A man cried, "Bota a camisa dentro! Bota a camisa dentro!" ("Put in the jersey! Put in the jersey!") as Esmerio's coffin was shelved into a drawer in the cemetery wall.

One of Esmerio's aunts, off to the side, watched. "Flamengo is good for nothing," she said.

EVEN AS BRAZIL'S ECONOMY and politics have been split by crisis over the past five years, almost nothing has remained as certain as the power of clubs like Flamengo when it comes to attracting talented young players with dreams of a professional soccer career.

Boys came from as far as 2,500 kilometers away to train at Flamengo's west Rio training center, nicknamed the "Vulture's Nest" after the breeding ground of the club mascot. The journey instilled pride and confidence in many of their family members. Alba Pereira, a school lunch worker and the mother of fire victim Jorge Dias Sacramento, said training at the Vulture's Nest could bring her son more exposure than in his small hometown of Alem Paraiba, Minas Gerais, and that he had "a brilliant future ahead of him." Sebastiao Rodrigues, a garbage company manager and an uncle to right-back Samuel Rosa, who also died, said Rosa was growing up in an environment where "we have difficulty finding a job."

"First of all, we're black," Rodrigues said, referring to the persistent racial wealth gap in Brazil. (On average, black Brazilians earn roughly half as much as whites.) "Second, we live in a favela." In 2018, Brazil experienced its third consecutive year with unemployment rates soaring to at least 11 percent.

The families assumed that Flamengo's 2019 projected revenue of more than $200 million would translate into safe conditions for their children. "Who would imagine that on the other side of the wall, there would be a situation like this?" Rodrigues said after details of the fire were reported on national television. Rodrigues said he had never been inside the training center.

"Flamengo, the best of the best, a millionaire team," he said, "putting our children to sleep in a container?"

Flamengo is in the final stages of a roughly $6 million remodel of the Vulture's Nest, a project that includes new youth dormitories where the club planned to soon move the children. But until work was completed, they housed players aged 14 to 17 in a row of six conjoined steel modular units at the edge of the site. The makeshift housing never received a fire inspection in part because the club never included the unit in the building plans required by the city for an operating license. The city has fined Flamengo 31 times for lack of a fire certificate for other buildings at that site.

Eventually, it ordered the training center to be closed in 2017, but Flamengo continued with its operations. It also maintained its magnetic draw for players from smaller Brazilian youth academies.

When Esmerio was 7 years old, his father observed his playing instincts and enrolled him in the under-7 division of the neighborhood club, Madureira. He soon began training in goal "because he was bigger than the other kids his age and playing a fixed position helped focus him," said youth coach Joanathan Garrido. By age 11, Esmerio had earned an invitation to Flamengo's youth academy. So did his Madureira teammate and close friend Rosa. He was more serious than Esmerio, but he was usually up for participating in Esmerio's capers, such as the time the boys snuck out of the team hotel on their first trip to Europe in 2013 and dove into the winter beach waters of Vila Real de Santo Antonio, Portugal, wearing only their underwear.

At the Vulture's Nest, the boys were housed with players from other states, such as lanky attacker Samuel Barbosa from Piaui, in Northeast Brazil, and Minas Gerais midfielder Dias Sacramento, nicknamed "Pit Bull" for his aggressive play, and whose energy off the field translated into electric dance sessions to the latest Brazilian funk hits.

The boys often told family and friends back home how much they loved life at the Nest. Their teams were good, too: This past August, Esmerio, Rosa and Dias Sacramento's under-15 team became state champions in a game won on penalties against their biggest rivals, Fluminense. Esmerio was the star, stopping a spot-kick in the shootout.

Flamengo's youth academy has grown in recent years to include almost 350 players from ages 7 to 20, quadrupling its spending on youth coaching, player stipends and other program costs between 2013 and 2017. It mirrors the growth of youth soccer overall in Brazil. A profitable youth academy like Flamengo's boasts the loyalty of trainees who sign professional contracts with the club, guaranteeing the club future royalties on their transfers.

In 2017, Flamengo spent approximately $4.3 million, around 5 percent of its total soccer spending, on a youth program that has developed players whose rights were then sold to other clubs. Sales of players originally developed there totaled more than $70 million over the past five years. A club director for the youth program told ESPN last July that Flamengo usually retains between 80 and 90 percent of the proceeds from these sales.

Brazil's federal Pele Law, passed in 1998, allows clubs to enter into special training contracts with players beginning at age 14, gaining the exclusive right to train players in exchange for guaranteeing soccer instruction and safe living conditions, according to public prosecutor Cristiane Sbalqueiro, a member of Brazil's federal task force on sports law. Under the law, Flamengo had been sued in 2015 by Rio state prosecutors for poor conditions at the training center, including precarious physical structure, lack of proper enrollment in school and lack of adequate monitors.

The 2015 lawsuit put the scenario in brutal terms, describing conditions at the club as "even worse than those currently offered to juvenile delinquents" and lamenting the risks to the safety, education and mental development of the boys who train there, considering "the rate of those who reach the professional level, around 5 percent." Juca Kfouri, a prominent Brazilian sports journalist, estimates that the rates of Brazilian amateur players who will end up making a dignified wage in professional soccer is closer to 3 percent. On Feb. 13, a state judge issued a ruling on the 2015 suit prohibiting children and adolescents from entering Flamengo's training center until it had passed new inspections, at the risk of incurring a $2 million fine.

The remodeled training center at Flamengo, with a new youth dormitory, aimed to address these issues. Still, the question echoing through Rio in the 11 days since the fire is why the children were housed at a risky site in the interim. Flamengo told ESPN it would not comment on why it housed adolescents in a place that had no fire inspection, referring to an official note that the club is "collaborating with the investigations and waiting for the conclusion of work that is being done by authorities."

Club directors have repeatedly huddled in a crisis control center at its headquarters in Rio's posh neighborhood of Gavea since the day of the fire. They have yet to hold a news conference, and the team's press officer emphasized to reporters that the club is prioritizing assistance to families at this time. "All requests made by families of victims were attended by Flamengo," spokesperson Fernando Santana told ESPN, "including housing, airfare, transfer service, and more." While driving families to and from medical examiners and funeral homes in the days after the fire, Flamengo staff have discouraged families of victims from speaking to the press.

Reading from a prepared statement the day after the fire, Flamengo CEO Reinaldo Belotti said the Vulture's Nest "licenses, authorization and fines" had "nothing to do with the accident that occurred." He quoted a 2015 certificate issued jointly from the Rio de Janeiro Football Federation (FERJ) and the Brazilian Confederation of Football (CBF) that declared the facilities "adequate in terms of food and hygiene, security and health." Belotti declined to take any questions from the media.

Asked why this certificate was issued for a facility that housed adolescents but was not inspected for fire, a FERJ press officer wrote via email that fire inspections "are the responsibility of government organs." The CBF did not respond.

"Their disastrous thinking," said Kfouri, "was that it's never going to happen here."

ON THE NIGHT OF Feb. 7, several young players who lived in Rio but slept at the Vulture's Nest during the week went home to spend the night with their families. There was no practice scheduled for Friday because an unusually strong rainstorm on that Wednesday had caused mudslides and deaths across the city. Esmerio, Rosa and Dias Sacramento, who often spent weekends with family members elsewhere in Rio, decided to stay in the dormitory instead, in part because they were planning a surprise 15th birthday party for defender Arthur Freitas the following day.

Twenty-four boys slept in the dormitory that night, according to a police investigation obtained by Brazil's TV Globo. Though the investigation is officially classified, Globo, Brazil's largest media organization, cited details from survivor testimony and security video. When asked for comment, police did not contest the veracity of the report.

In the video footage, reportedly at about 5 a.m., smoke began to billow from the building. Rio police are investigating the theory that an air-conditioning unit short-circuited during the night, causing the polyurethane foam insulation that filled the makeshift dormitory's steel walls to burn.

Polyurethane is a commonly used plastic for insulation and furniture around the world, says University of Sao Paulo Poison Center director Dr. Anthony Wong, despite the fact that when it burns "it emits hydrogen cyanide, a chemical so toxic it can kill someone in two minutes or faster."

A few whiffs, Wong said, is enough to "block oxygen to the brain and poison it," which he says could explain why the boys seen exiting the dormitory in the video are walking slowly rather than running.

The building eventually bursts into flames.

"I woke up with the smell of something burning," Barbosa, 16, said in a phone interview to ESPN a week after the fire. He said he closed his eyes at that moment because of "strong, black smoke." Barbosa said he went to the doorway of his room, tried to look right and left down the hall, "and heard that explosion, BOOF!"

"I called out 'Bolivia! Bolivia! Follow my voice, Bolivia!' Because everything was black with smoke," Barbosa said. Bolivia is the nickname of midfielder Rykelmo Viana, Barbosa's roommate, also 16. "When I opened my eye a little bit, I saw the fire coming really fast and I ran, and from outside I kept calling him."

Viana's body was later identified at the site.

Sixteen boys escaped the site, three of whom were hospitalized with burn wounds -- one, burned across over 30 percent of his body, is still in the hospital. Brazil's official news agency, citing the club, identified the 10 victims as Athila Paixao (14 years), Arthur Vinicius Barros da Silva Freitas (14), Bernardo Pisetta (15), Christian Esmerio (15), Jorge Eduardo Santos (15), Pablo Henrique da Silva Matos (14), Vitor Isaias (14), Samuel Thomas Rosa (15), Rykelmo Des Souza Viana (17) and Gedson Santos (14). Flamengo paid for survivors to travel home to visit family in the days after the fire.

IF THE WITNESS INTERVIEWS obtained by Globo are correct, says Federal University of Rio de Janeiro risk management professor Gerardo Portela, "those who survived were those sleeping closest to the door," which emphasizes the high risks of housing people in a space with one exit. Available evidence so far, according to Portela, points to a "series of the problems at the site" that a basic fire inspection would "easily identify."

Beyond the lack of a fire inspection, Flamengo appears to have been breaking the law by the lack of alert adult night monitors, according to Rio public defender and child rights specialist Eufrasia Souza, who serves on the state Committee for Defense of the Rights of Children and Adolescents. She says federal regulations require entities that house minors to have "one monitor per every 10 children or adolescents per shift, which includes night shifts, in case there is any need or emergency."

A monitor would, in theory, be able to detect the smell of smoke; the one assigned to the Vulture's Nest youth dormitory that night later told police investigators he was not in the dormitory when the fire began, according to Globo.

At 5:17 a.m., the fire department was called. At 5:38, they arrived at the training center and were able to contain the fire in less than an hour.

The bodies the firefighters found inside the center were reportedly so badly burned that it took about 48 hours to confirm all of their their identities so they could be returned to their families for burial. Flamengo transported family members to the forensic examiner and submitted the boys' dental exams so that their bodies could be identified by the remains of their teeth. During this process, the club housed families in an upscale hotel near the training center and paid for a team of psychologists to attend to them there.

Seventy-two hours after news of Samuel Rosa's death, his family members paced in front of his parents' home in Rio's far northern outskirts, trying to calm down an uncle who was talking about committing suicide. Eventually they managed to escort the tearful uncle into a family car to take him to a hospital, while another uncle dialed his contact at Flamengo for what he says was the fourth time that morning. He shook his head as the call went to voicemail.

"They could at least answer the phone," he said. "Away from the hotel, it's different. They said they would provide support to the families. Where is it?"

THE 11 DAYS SINCE the tragedy have seen a frenzy of police investigations and government inspections of the site and other soccer training centers across the country. Parts of the training grounds at Rio clubs Vasco and Botafogo and Sao Paulo club Portuguesa have since been ordered to close until they pass new inspections.

Flamengo fans discussed the closures as they watched the opening lineup of Thursday night's playoff between rivals Flamengo and Fluminense from a bar in central Rio. "Botafogo had open electric wires hanging from the ceiling! Ridiculous," hospital administrator Fatima Carvalho said.

The Flamengo athletes taking the field had "Boys of the Nest" written across their jerseys and fans inside the stadium held up white balloons 10 minutes into the game in tribute to Esmerio, Rosa, Dias Sacramento, Viana and their six other teammates who were killed. Images of their faces scrolled slowly across the bottom of the television screen at the start of play.

While Flamengo has taken great measures to pay public tribute to the dead players, it has still provided few answers about why they died.

On Friday, Flamengo legal director Rodrigo Abranches agreed to take brief questions from reporters after exiting a meeting. Asked why Flamengo did not close its training center after the city ordered it to do so, Abranches said he had been in his job for around 30 days at the time of the accident. "I can't speak for past management," he said.

"In this period, seven days," the reporter said, "you still have not been able to figure out why this city order was not obeyed?"

"Look, administrative orders can be appealed. If I want to appeal, I will," Abranches said.

Public defender Souza said that the victims' families have grounds to sue Flamengo "given the noncompliance with requirements" for organizations that house adolescents, and Flamengo and government authorities have gathered in a series of meetings between Flamengo and government authorities to determine possible compensation with the families. "They've told us they know they are in the wrong," said Milton Rodrigues, one of Rosa's uncles.

Rio public defender Paloma Lamego said Friday that Flamengo was discussing the possibility of compensation clauses that would prevent families from pursuing future legal action. Meanwhile, Sebastiao Rodrigues, another uncle of Rosa, said the family is waiting to see the options that will be presented this week.

"More than anything," he said, "this event needs to lead to real, lasting change in treatment of young players."

"Flamengo should make the fire its Hillsborough to never forget it," wrote soccer commentator Mauro Cezar Pereira in a column for news site UOL, referring to the 1989 crowd control disaster at a British stadium that prompted safety reforms in soccer facilities across Great Britain.

Brazilian soccer site Olheiros (Scouts), founded by journalists who specialize in covering youth academies, also called for a national reckoning, tweeting: "Today in Brazil there is a culture of romanticizing roughness in the treatment of the young boys."

For the victims and their families, it remains a horror-seared memory and an irreversible loss.

Barbosa, who tried to wake his roommate Viana before escaping, says the tragedy made him feel "like there is no floor under me."

"It made me want to stop playing soccer," he said. "I couldn't imagine returning to the field and not seeing my teammates."

Despite his indignation over his nephew's death, Sebastiao Rodrigues still hopes Rosa's younger brother, who is 13, will make it into the Flamengo youth academy. "It's his best chance," Rodrigues said.

As for Barbosa, he spent days thinking hard about his future and says now he does want to return to play soccer on behalf of his teammates who were killed, especially Viana, who he describes as a brother.

Still, "it's really difficult to start over," said Barbosa's father, Washington -- even as the parent of a player who survived.

"All we want to do is kiss him."

Editor's note: Interviews were conducted in Portuguese and translated to English.