COMAYAGUA, Honduras (AP) — A fire started by an inmate tore through an overcrowded prison in Honduras, burning and suffocating screaming men in their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for keys. Officials confirmed 358 dead Wednesday, making it the world's deadliest prison fire in a century.
The local governor, who was once a prison employee, told reporters that an inmate called her moments before the blaze broke out and screamed: "I will set this place on fire and we are all going to die!"
Comayagua Gov. Paola Castro said she called the Red Cross and fire brigade immediately after receiving the call late Tuesday night. But firefighters said they were kept outside for half an hour by guards who fired their guns in the air, thinking they had a riot or a breakout on their hands.
Officials have long had little control over conditions inside many Honduran prisons, where inmates have largely unfettered access to cell phones and other contraband.
Survivors told investigators the unidentified inmate set fire to his bedding in the farm prison in the central town of Comayagua, 53 miles (86 kilometers) north of Tegucigalpa. The lockup housed people convicted of serious crimes such as homicide and armed robbery, but also those who had yet to be tried.
The blaze spread within minutes, killing inmates in their locked barracks.
"We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them," Comayagua fire department spokesman Josue Garcia said.
With 856 prisoners packed into barracks, the prison was at double capacity, said Supreme Court Justice Richard Ordonez, who is leading the investigation. There were only 12 guards on duty when the fire broke out, said state prosecutor German Enamorado.
Ordonez told The Associated Press the fire started in a barracks where 105 prisoners were bunked, and only four of them survived. Some 115 bodies had been sent on Wednesday to the morgue in the capital of Tegucigalpa.
Other prisoners were set free by guards but died from the flames or smoke as they tried to flee into the fields surrounding the facility, where prisoners grew corn and beans on a state-run farm.
Survivors told grim tales of climbing walls to break the sheet metal roofing and escape, only to see prisoners in other cell blocks being burned alive.
"I only saw flames, and when we got out, they were being burned, up against the bars, they were stuck to them," said Eladio Chicas, 40, who was in his 15th year of a 39-year sentence.
"It was something horrible," he said as he was led away by police, handcuffed, to testify before a local court about what he saw. "This is a nightmare."
Ordonez said the inmates' bodies were found piled up in the prison's bathrooms, where they apparently fled to turn on the showers and hope the water would save them from the blistering flames.
Instead, their bodies were found stacked like cordwood, burnt to cinders.
Prisoners perished clutching each other in bathtubs and curled up in laundry sinks
Ordonez said other were found stuck to the metal roofing, their burned bodies fused to the metal.
"We were awoken by the flames and screams," said homicide suspect Selbim Adonay, 18, one of the prison's many inmates awaiting trial. He wore a dust mask and handcuffs, his jeans torn. "We couldn't do anything because we were locked up."
Comayagua was built in the 1940s for 400 inmates.
Inside the prison, charred walls and debris showed the path of the fire, which burned through half of the prison, six barracks crammed with 70 to 105 inmates each in four levels of bunk beds.
Unlike U.S. prisons, where locks can be released automatically in an emergency, Honduran prisons are infamous for being old, overcrowded hotbeds of conflict and crime.
Outside the prison family members gathered late into the afternoon, some crying and some demanding justice,
"We want to see the body," shouted Juan Martinez, whose son was reported dead. "We'll be here until we get to do that."
A prisoner identified as Silverio Aguilar told HRN Radio that he first knew something was wrong when he heard a scream of "Fire! Fire!"
"For a while, nobody listened. But after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a guard appeared with keys and let us out," he said.
He said there were 60 prisoners packed into his cell.
National prison system director Danilo Orellana defended the guards' decision to keep firefighters out as flames lit up the night sky.
"The guards first thought they had a prison break, so they followed the law saying no one could enter to prevent unnecessary deaths," he said.
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said on national television that he had suspended the country's top penal officials, including Orellana, and would request international assistance in carrying out a thorough investigation.
"This is a day of profound sadness," Lobo said.
Orellana said the convicts were allowed to work outdoors, unlike those held in a maximum-security facility for the country's most dangerous prisoners in the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Located in the middle of irrigated fields and several large ponds, the prison was comprised of 12 buildings set close together, with an open, dirt prison yard within a central compound. A single dirt road led into the facility, which has a soccer field on the property.
Honduras has one of the world's highest rates of violent crime, and its overcrowded and dilapidated prisons have been hit by a string of deadly riots and fires in recent years. Officials have repeatedly pledged to improve conditions, only to say they don't have sufficient funds.
Tuesday's blaze was the world's deadliest prison fire since 1930, when 322 prisoners were killed in Ohio.
Honduras has 24 prisons, 23 for men or both genders, and one exclusively for women. In December, the total prison population was 11,846 of which 411 were women.
Associated Press writers Christine Armario from Comayagua, Honduras, and Martha Mendoza from Mexico City contributed to this report.