For a gruff, no-nonsense technocrat known for intimidating even her closest aides, the tears rolling down President Dilma Rousseff’s face were especially striking.
After receiving a phone call at 7 a.m. Sunday notifying her of a nightclub fire that killed 235 people in southern Brazil, Ms. Rousseff cut short a visit to Chile and was on the scene by midday.
One photo showed her in a Santa Maria gym that had been turned into a makeshift morgue, cradling the head of a victim’s mother with both hands as the two women cried.
The hundred or so corpses created an overpowering, acrid smell but Ms. Rousseff stayed for about half an hour, consoling the families of the survivors one by one before flying to Brasilia. An aide said she was emotionally devastated.
Those close to the president say the tragedy has hit her hard for two main reasons.
First, the high death toll, magnified by the fact it occurred in her adopted home state of Rio Grande do Sul. Second, because Ms. Rousseff has staked her presidency on battling the reckless, anything-goes legal and political culture often seen in Brazil, which many blame for the high number of deaths.
“It seems this tragedy could have been minimized if Brazil had better, more responsive institutions, and that’s what this president has consistently and vigorously pushed for, more than many other leaders,” said Eliana Calmon, a federal judge who has gained nationwide fame for battling corruption.
Police investigations have pointed to a number of breakdowns that led to the disaster at the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, a relatively wealthy university city of about 250,000 people.
The club’s safety permit had expired last year, and some lawyers say city and fire department officials shouldn’t have allowed it to continue to operate while it sought a renewal.
Other questions remain about whether the club was operating above capacity and if it broke the law by only having one working exit at the moment a band started a pyrotechnics show that set the roof ablaze and filled the room with toxic smoke.
Many Brazilians doubt the Santa Maria disaster will lead Ms. Rousseff or other leaders to push for better safety or regulatory enforcement. They point to past incidents such as a 1972 fire in a Sao Paulo skyscraper that killed 16 people. Despite angry cries for reform, just two years later a fire at another skyscraper a few blocks away left 179 people dead.