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The Killer Doctor, the Swirling Fire, and the World’s Most Haunted Building

This block in Brazil has been home to one of the deadliest skyscraper disasters in history, a doctor with a murderous secret, and—some say—a curse that goes back centuries.

The Killer Doctor, the Swirling Fire, and the World’s Most Haunted Building

In 1990, visitors to Brazil’s São Pedro Cemetery began noticing something eerie.

The cemetery in São Paulo was relatively new, inaugurated in 1972, right in the middle of one of this bustling city’s busiest areas, so noise and activity were par for the course. But what visitors to the graveyard heard wasn’t the hustle of daily city life or burials. Instead, multiple people reported hearing screaming, moaning and cries for help. It seemed the dead were restless.

The reported cries for help came from a very specific site: a mass grave of 13 bodies, buried there only two years after the cemetery had opened. Desperate to stop the noises, one day, the cemetery caretaker, Luiz Nunez, did the only thing he could think of: He grabbed a watering can and dumped its contents on the 13 graves.

“We started thanking god then, because it quieted them,” Nunez said in a 2005 television interview, standing over the graves while he spoke, shaking his head as if still in disbelief.  

From then on, many visitors who claimed to hear their cries would leave a glass of water on their graves, rather than the flowers that dotted the rest of the cemetery.

Graves of the 13 unidentified people who died in the Joelma Building fire in 1974, at the São Pedro Cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The 13 had lost their lives less than 7 miles away, during one of Brazil’s most infamous disasters, a 1974 fire that swept through the Joelma Building, a site that has become legendary as one of the world’s most haunted places.

 

Chapter One: The Thirteen

On the day of the fire, a Friday morning, nothing suggested a tragedy was about to befall the city. The 25-story Joelma Building stood proudly in the city center, filled with workers. Shortly after its construction in 1972, an investment bank called Banco Crefisul had rented the building. They were still settling in when an electrical short circuit in the air-conditioning sparked a small fire on the 12th floor at around 8:50 a.m. 

The Joelma Building was filled with wooden furniture, carpeted floors, fabric curtains and internal synthetic fiber linings — all flammable materials that made it exceptionally vulnerable to a fire emergency. There were no fire alarms, sprinklers or emergency exits. 

On the first 10 floors of the Joelma Building, there were only parking lots and a handful of workers. From the 11th upward, offices were filled to the brim with employees. The news traveled quickly, and the almost 800 people inside grasped the gravity of the situation. Someone called the fire department, but they wouldn’t arrive for 20 long minutes: more than enough time for the flames to surround the upper floors of the buildings, creating a deadly trap.

Firefighters battle to extinguish the Joelma Building flames, 1974. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Those who were on the 11th floor had enough time to make it to safety. But as they pooled onto the streets, they were soon joined by a crowd, everyone’s eyes fixated skyward, toward the upper floors.

The flames had gotten worse. The fire obstructed the stairs, shattering windows as the smoke choked out the oxygen. The firefighters could only reach the 16th floor with their ladders, and helicopters were at risk of exploding and causing even more casualties if they got too close.

Those inside grew more and more desperate as they were cornered by the flames. Forty of them decided that they’d rather jump from the shattered windows than face the fire. None of them survived, but several cameras caught the exact moment of their deaths. 

Sueli Versignassi, then a 20-year old secretary at Crefisul, spoke last year about being trapped in the building, describing what it was like to be on the upper floors as time was running out. 

“We went through the unimaginable, from trying to shrink to hide from the flames as they licked the ceiling, to using dead bodies to protect us from the fire. It was Dante’s Hell.”

Versignassi was among those who were fortunate enough to escape. What no cameras could catch, and no interview could record, were the 13 men and women, who may or may not have known each other beforehand, and how they devised a plan to escape the Joelma Building. 

After finding no possible exits, they tried their luck with a risky plan: the elevators, which were still working. 

It was not easy to find the elevators through the fire and smoke, but they finally did, and together they boarded. One of them hit the button to close the doors; the air was hot and almost unbearable inside the metal walls of the elevator box. They pressed more buttons to command the elevator to take them to the lower floors, where the fire would not be able to reach them. Where they would be safe.

Most of the 13 were dehydrated, had inhaled too much smoke, and were close to collapsing. They knew they would find help below, but even the short elevator ride was perilous. The elevator whirled, coming to life as it started to bring them to safety. 

Until the flames found it again, and it suddenly stopped. 

The metal box did not come crashing down. Instead, it hung there as the air continued to grow hotter and thicker with smoke. 

When it became obvious that no one was coming for them — no one possibly could when the flames were still so powerful — they huddled together, sharing one last gesture of camaraderie. The 13 pulled each other in a tight embrace, preparing themselves for what was to come. 

When firemen finally got the flames under control and entered the Joelma Building to recover bodies, they found the 13. It was a gruesome scene. Many of their remains had partially fused with the metal walls. It was impossible to tell who was who, what they were wearing, what their names were, or even which body parts belonged to which person. 

They were buried side by side in 13 adjoined graves in the newly opened São Pedro Cemetery.

 

Chapter Two: The Lovelorn Professor's Well

In 1948, on the block where the Joelma Building would one day be built, there was a piece of private property belonging to Paulo Ferreira de Camargo, a young chemistry professor. Although his house was humble, its close proximity to the center of São Paulo made it a good spot to live. There were shops nearby, as well the Theatro Municipal — one of the biggest and most important theaters in Brazil. (It is widely reported in Brazilian media that the Joelma Building was built on the site of Camargo’s home, although some sources state it is about a block from where the professor’s house once stood.)

The newspaper A Noite would later report that young Professor Camargo made frequent visits to the hospital along with his mother and his sisters. Camargo’s mother, Benedita, had cancer; Maria Antonieta, the middle child, suffered from epilepsy; and Cordélia, Paulo’s youngest sister, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The hospital is where Paulo de Camargo met Isaltina dos Amaros, a nurse whom he would fall in love with.

Portrait of Paulo Ferreira de Camargo published by the newspaper “A Noite,” 1948. (Image courtesy of the Brazilian Digital Library)

Their love story began like a fairy tale, with dos Amaros’s mother, Fortunata, wholeheartedly accepting Camargo. Later, in an interview with Diario da Noite, Fortunata would state that she had loved Paulo like a son. Actually, she said she loved him even more than she loved her own son.

Trouble began brewing when Camargo’s mother, Benedita, learned about her son’s relationship with a social pariah. Before meeting Camargo, dos Amaros had fallen in love with someone else and lost her virginity, at the time an unpardonable social sin. 

Benedita Camargo took matters into her own hands, making dos Amaros’s life as difficult as possible, not even allowing Camargo to talk to the young woman on the phone. Later, dos Amaros would share that Benedita’s daughters, Maria Antonieta and Cordélia, agreed with their mother and had helped her. 

When Paolo Camargo found out about his family’s efforts to keep him from his love, he was infuriated. He apologized to dos Amaros profusely. He reportedly opened up to her about the strain of dealing with his family’s health issues, about how tired he was of being around them so often, and how unbearable they could be. He insisted that he was the man of the house and should not have been disrespected by them.

Though the couple remained together, something had changed in Paolo Camargo. He became withdrawn and depressed. Not even dos Amaros fully understood why. 

Soon after, Camargo approached one of his students, a young man named Benedito Camargo (no relation) with a simple — but unsettling — request.

Paulo Camargo brought a gun to the school he worked at, explaining to the young student that he was conducting an experiment on the reverberation of sound. He said he needed Benedito to stand outside one of the school’s labs, with the door closed, to test if the noise of the gun going off was audible outside. Although it struck him as an odd request, Benedito agreed. When Camargo fired the gun inside, Benedito, standing outside the closed door, reported that he could still hear something akin to an explosion, albeit a bit muffled. 

After that, Camargo suddenly and inexplicably had a well built in his backyard.

And then, shortly after the well was completed, Paulo Camargo shot his mother and his sisters in cold blood.

Benedita was shot twice in the chest, dying almost immediately.

Cordélia was shot once in the back and once in the neck, though neither injury killed her immediately. She eventually died of internal bleeding.

Maria Antonieta was shot three times, once in the neck and twice in the back. Camargo had also tied her up, apparently to ensure she’d stay put before he killed her.

Camargo wrapped the three women in black shrouds and covered their heads with hoods before throwing their bodies inside the newly completed well, which he then sealed shut.

Even with the bodies disposed of, Camargo still needed an explanation for his family’s sudden disappearance. He informed his friends, co-workers and neighbors that his mother and sisters had gone to a different state to spend some time on a farm. A while later, he paid a visit to a friend, José Ramos Rosa, asking to borrow a suitcase so he could go bring his family home.

Three days later, Camargo sent letters to Ramos Rosa, dos Amaros and others informing them that his family members had been in an accident and their car had fallen off a cliff. He urged dos Amaros to be careful around cars. Camargo also contacted Carlos, his half-brother, and informed him of what had happened.

Carlos visited Camargo as soon as his brother was back in São Paulo, but he quickly became suspicious of his story. Each time Carlos asked, the details of Camargo’s story seemed slightly different. More unsettling, Paulo did not have his family’s death certificates.

Eager to get to the bottom of things, Carlos informed the police. So did Paulo Mazzi, a neighbor who had noticed Camargo sealing off his well shortly after it had been completed.

When the police came to Camargo’s home to investigate, at least 19 days after the murders, he mocked them.

“Do you gentlemen believe I’m insane, that I’m unhinged enough to have killed my mother and my sisters and buried them in my backyard? My house is all yours. Search it all you want,” a reporter from A Noite stated Camargo told the police officers when they arrived at his home.

Camargo knew, however, that he was doomed the moment they uncovered the well. He asked to be excused and locked himself in the bathroom, where he’d stashed the murder weapon. With the same gun he’d used to murder his family, Paulo Camargo shot himself in the heart and died before explaining anything to the police. Everything the authorities and the media would ever know has been pieced together by those left behind.

 

Chapter Three: A Haunted Legacy

Fifty-seven years after Paulo Camargo murdered his family — and 31 years after the Joelma Building burned — Luiz Nunes, the caretaker at the São Pedro Cemetery, would speak to TV Globo about his experience with the supernatural.

He was far from the only one though.

In 2004, others experienced something strange at the same site. A team working for the mayor, frightened by the history surrounding that site, would only step inside the Praça da Bandeira Building — as it was renamed in the beginning of the 2000s — after a Buddhist monk purified it and deemed it safe. However, the monk told TV Globo that she could not do anything to placate the ghosts that many still believed inhabited the building. Other witnesses agreed with her: They told stories of car lights flashing uncontrollably in the parking lot, and whispers and cries of pain following on-site workers.

Some believe that the ghosts inhabiting the site are older and more numerous than the Joelma fire victims and the murderous doctor and his family. Slaves were freed in Brazil in May 1888, but before that, the corner of São Paulo where the Joelma Building burned and Camargo killed his family was said to be home to a pillory, where slaves were taken to be tortured and murdered. 

Christopher French, professor emeritus and head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldmiths, University of London, explained one reason why people may believe so strongly in hauntings at sites like Joelma. French explains that multiple studies have shown the effect of priming — that is, hearing that a place is haunted beforehand makes people more likely to experience inexplicable but vague phenomena like sensing presences, changes in temperature, sounds, or shivers down the spine. 

So is the site of the Joelma Building cursed? French says its plagued history may be a consequence of our own search for meaning in the wake of tragedy. 

“One thing we are very good at is picking up on meaning and finding patterns in what’s going on around us and reading significance into that, but sometimes we overplay it,” French says. “A specific example of that is the tendency that we have to see clusters in what are actually kind of random distributions. If you were to look at lots of different sites, all of which had a long history, then you would find bad stuff happening in some places, and in some places, repeated bad stuff — that’s the way that randomness works. But we would tend to read more into that.” 

Praça da Bandeira Building, previously known as the Joelma Building, 2016. (Photo by Joao Batista Shimoto, via Wikimedia Commons)

French explains that this tendency underlies a lot of the general idea behind curses; any very old building or site will most likely be linked to a lot of people’s lives, and therefore a lot of events — some good and some bad. How people choose to interpret that is very important. 

“We’re meaning makers, because we’re trying to make sense of our lives, our place in the scheme of things. So a curse, even though it might not be a real explanation, it does give people the sense that they at least they understand why it’s happened, particularly something that seems incomprehensible to us.”

Renaming the building has done little to help its reputation, even decades later. The São Paulo neighborhood where the tower stands is bursting with life, as it always has been. But a real estate broker who lists the Praça da Bandeira Building, noting that it is just a three-minute walk from a metro station, still has plenty of vacancies.