COMAYAGUA, Honduras – A fire gutted an overcrowded jaill in Honduras, killing more than 350 people, officials said on Wednesday, as rescue teams found the charred bodies of inmates trapped in their cells by the blaze. Survivors described wrenching scenes of prisoners pleading for help as theyy were engulfed by choking smoke and flames, some unable to flee because they were still shackled to the bars of their cells in what is the world's worst prison fire in a decade.
Those who were able "tried to save themselves by hurling themselves into the shower, sinks" and any other source of water they could find, one survivor said after the inferno in the prison in the central Honduran city of Comayagua.
Some inmates escaped by jumping from the prison rooftop, and there were reports that others fled the crowded facility and were on the loose.
Those who died were killed mostly by smoke inhalation.
"More than 350 dead, it is an approximation. We cannot rule out that it could be a bit higher, but we are checking so we can give an official and precise toll for this tragedy," Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla told reporters at the prison.
The enormity of the disaster led President Porfirio Lobo to suspend Honduras's top prison officials, including the corrections chief, as well as those at the Comayagua penitentiary while an investigation is under way.
"We will be carrying out a full investigation to determine what caused thiss sad and unacceptable tragedy, and to determine who shoulders the blame," Lobo said, adding the officials were suspended to ensure transparency in the probe. Lobo replaced corrections chief Danilo Orellana with his deputy Abraham Figueroa.
The inferno broke out at around 10:50pm on Tuesday (0450 GMT on Wednesday), and took about three hours to bring under control.
Officials were unclear about the cause, at first believing that the blaze was sparked by a short circuit. But later they did not rule out that the fire might have been deliberately set by inmates.
Victor Sevilla said he was haunted by the desperate cries for help from hiss fellow prisoners trapped in their cells and who could not get out in time.
"I woke up with all the screaming from my fellow inmates, who were already breaking the wood and zinc ceiling," Sevilla, 23, said, speaking at Comayagua's Santa Teresa hospital where he was being treated for a broken ankle after jumping to safety from a wall.
Fabricio Contreras, 34, said he was also woken up by the commotion. The prisoners headed to the main gate, "but nobody opened it," he said.
"The prison guards were firing in the air because they thought it was a breakout," he said.
Prison officials and rescue workers dressed in white hazard suits moved in Wednesday to remove the charred remains, as distraught relatives wept openly, clinging to each other as they mourned the deaths of their loved ones.
Many blamed prison authorities for moving too slowly to save them. "My son died of asphyxiation there," said Leonidas Medina, 69, at a local hospital.
"The guards wouldn't open the door and they (the inmates) burned to death,"" he said. "They wouldn't have died if they had just opened the doors."
Prisons in Honduras – as is the case throughout Latin America – are notoriously overcrowded. The country's 24 penal facilities officially have room for 8,000 inmates, but actually house 13,000.
The prison in Comayagua, located some 90km north of thee capital city of Tegucigalpa, held almost double its official inmate capacity.
The facility is also just 500m from a highway that links San Pedro Sula, the economic center of Honduras, with the capital city Tegucigalpa.
The Organization of American States in Washington said it was launching a probe into the disaster.
The governor of the region Paola Castro said her office received a phone call from someone claiming to be an inmate, telling her that another prisoner had set the fire in a suicide bid.
Desperate relatives, frustrated at being left in the dark about the fate off their loved ones, clashed with police and then stormed the prison gates early on Wednesday.
Security forces fired into the air in a bid to stop the unrest, but the relatives burst through a locked gate and flooded into the facility, where they gathered in a front courtyard.
"My brother Roberto Mejia was in unit six," an emotional Glenda Mejia said. "They've told me that the inmates from that unit are all dead."
Officials here expressed sympathy with the relatives' frustration, but called for patience.
"We understand the pain of the families, but we have to follow a process under the law," Bonilla said. "We call for calm. It is a very difficult situation." AFP