COMAYAGUA, Honduras (AP) — The screams haunt convicted murderer Marco Antonio Bonilla, even now as Honduras hails him a hero for saving hundreds of inmates from fire raging through their prison.
The 50-year-old Bonilla, who has a seemingly permanent frown on his face, described with difficulty his role in the Feb. 14 blaze at the Comayagua farm prison that killed 360 inmates, the worst such tragedy in a century. At times his voice cracked.
"They were yelling at me, 'Shorty, Shorty, don't let us die! Open the door!'" Bonilla, who is nicknamed Shorty, told The Associated Press in an interview inside the prison Wednesday. "It's sad to hear your friends crying for help."
Bonilla, who worked as an assistant to the prison's doctor, had for years slept in the infirmary instead of the barracks so he could attend to overnight medical emergencies.
That may have saved him.
He awoke to the screams of prisoners asking for help. He ran outside and saw flames engulfing several barracks. He ran to a prison guard who had keys to the cells.
"I told him we needed to help them, to get them out so they wouldn't die, but he just threw the keys to the ground and left," Bonilla said. "I don't think (the guards) wanted to risk getting burned."
Braving the flames, Bonilla used the keys to open the doors to nine of the 10 barracks. Prisoners broke open the other one using a metal pipe, he said. By the time he got there, however, many people inside had already died.
"It was really difficult because I didn't know which way to turn," Bonilla said. "They were yelling at me from one side, and then from the other."
A witness said Bonilla picked up a bench and broke the lock on one cell.
"If it had been up to me, I would have saved everyone, but unfortunately I wasn't able to," Bonilla said.
When asked how many inmates he saved, he was at first reticent.
"I don't know what to say. There were quite a few; there were many."
When the interviewer insisted on a number, he answered: "About 250, I think."
Rescuers who entered the prison afterward said they were met with the horrific images of burned bodies fused to the prison tin roofing and to cell bars. Prisoners died clutching each other in their cells and in bathrooms.
Bonilla is hopeful that President Porfirio Lobo will make good on his promise to pardon him so he can soon return to his home in the town of San Ignacio, near the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
Lobo said Tuesday that he would pardon Bonilla and asked his ministers to expedite his release from prison. "He put himself at incredible risk trying to save lives during the tragedy," Lobo said.
It is a big turnaround for a man who has been in the Comayagua prison for 17 years, serving sentences for murder and theft. Bonilla said he killed a man to defend his father.
Asked what he would do first if set free, Bonilla said he would go see his 91-year-old dad.
"There are times when one wants nothing more than to be with one's family," he said. "There are times one loves his parents too much and acts the (wrong) way, but there are other times when one regrets what one does."
Despite Lobo's announcement, Honduran law doesn't allow pardons for people convicted for murder or sentenced to more than five years in prison.
Bonilla still has 14 more years on his sentence.
He said he didn't think the fire was set intentionally.
U.S. investigators have concluded it started accidentally, perhaps caused by a lit match, cigarette or some other open flame in the area of bunk beds.
Inmates had clothes, curtains and small electrical devices hung from their tightly packed-together bunks. Some also had materials to light makeshift kitchen stoves, according to some of the survivors. In the part of the prison where the fire started there were 105 prisoners crammed into rows of bunks four levels high. Only four survived.
There were six guards supervising 852 prisoners that night at the prison about 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of Honduras' capital, Tegucigalpa.
A government report this month said the prison's capacity was 500, and more than half of the 852 inmates crowded inside were awaiting trial. Some had yet to be charged.
Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa contributed to this report.