Outside, Corte Real and his friends could hear the screams of people trying to escape.
He told Globo TV that he and his friends ran back into the club to try to help.
They pulled out one body. Then two more.
"Somebody must be alive," he said.
Basson and his friends, meanwhile, grabbed rocks, sticks and an axe they found at a nearby building and began trying to knock a hole in the side of the club to help those trapped inside. Others soon joined them with shovels and more axes.
Firefighters used the hole Basson and his friends created to get inside the club.
There, they were greeted by the eerie sounds of cell phones ringing in the pockets and purses of the dead. Many of the calls were from parents desperate to reach their children.
Later Sunday, family members wept as they searched for information outside a local gymnasium where bodies were taken for identification.
Inside, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff met with relatives as they waited on bleachers for word of their loved ones. She had been attending a regional summit in Chile, but cut short the trip and returned to Brazil early to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy.
"The Brazilian people are the ones who need me today," she said. "I want to tell the people of Santa Maria in this time of sadness that we are all together."
Ericmar Avila Dos Santos went from hospital to hospital Sunday, searching for his 23-year-old brother.
Hours earlier, he learned in a telephone call from a friend that his older brother was among those missing following the fire.
His family scanned lists, talked with police officials. They checked with friends, searched everywhere.
They finally found him -- among hundreds of bodies laid out on body bags at a makeshift morgue at a local gym.
"I was supposed to go with him. I didn't feel like going out. He ended up there without me," Avila Dos Santos said, openly sobbing over his brother's coffin outside the gym.
On Monday, the first of Brazil's three days of mourning, the three cemeteries in the city of 260,000 were packed with families readying to bury their dead.
Among them was Avila Dos Santos' family.
"We did everything together. We were even studying the same major," he said, remembering his brother. "Now that he's gone, I'm lost. I don't know what I'm going to do with my life."