BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — A hero of a Bucharest nightclub fire that killed at least 32 people was buried Tuesday in a memorial service that drew hundreds of weeping mourners, while more than 20,000 others took to the streets of the capital to protest against the government following the tragic event.
Claudiu Petre, a kind-hearted and bearded 36-year-old photographer and blogger, returned to the blaze in the Colectiv nightclub on Friday night to rescue a woman and then went back into the inferno in the basement club. He was never seen alive again.
Colleagues and friends recalled his final moments as they bade farewell to Petre, who President Klaus Iohannis decorated posthumously for his "bravery, altruism and dedication" in a memorial service lasting more than two hours.
Witnesses say the blaze erupted when a spark ignited flammable foam, sending panicked people stampeding to the single-door exit. Petre was seen dragging the girlfriend of another photographer out of the club. He then went back into the burning basement a second time.
The nightclub's three owners have been detained for questioning, and dozens of people remain hospitalized with serious burns.
Public anger about the nightclub fire came to the fore later Tuesday as thousands of Romanians took to the streets, with the number reaching more than 20,000 at its peak to protest against the government demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, Interior Minister Gabriel Oprea and the mayor of the district where Colectiv was located.
Romania's President Klaus Iohannis wrote on his Facebook page late Tuesday that protesters "are right, someone has to take political responsibility. The next step is for politicians, who cannot ignore this sentiment of revolt."
Anger has been brewing for some time in Romania against the government, which many perceive as being corrupt, and Friday's fire has added to the discontent. The protesters, who briefly scuffled with ant-riot police, were demanding that authorities punish people deemed responsible for the blaze, the deadliest of its kind in the country's history.
Popular and respected among rockers and photographers, Petre, an only child who was unmarried, was a physics graduate who made a living from an IT business.
Best friend Alexandra Siru, 30, said he was "an intelligent person with a big heart."
Another friend, photographer Valentin Diaconescu, 41, told The Associated Press he had seen the first fireworks show at the club together with Petre before leaving the concert to cover another event.
"The last conversation I had with him was about London, where he'd gone about two weeks ago, to take photos of a band called Coma," he recalled.
The patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church made a surprise visit to the site of the memorial service, entering the church by the back gate, thus avoiding mourners who have been critical of the church for failing to address public grief unlike clerics from other churches. Patriarch Daniel told reporters there was a hostile attitude toward the church and people need to calm down in the wake of the nightclub fire.
Outside the St. Dumitru church, dozens of leather-jacketed rockers, carrying mauve chrysanthemums, men sporting beards, ponytails and pierced ears, smoked and fumed about criticism directed at their music and lifestyle by some Romanians. Only friends and family were allowed into the courtyard of the church in a hardscrabble district of the capital.
In a tribute to Petre's popularity, friends said they felt his spirit was still among them.
"He was— no he is— a wonderful person, cheerful, he helped everyone, he was the life and soul of the party," Diaconescu said. "He is all of those things. I don't want to talk about him as if he's gone."