TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras >> A fire started by an inmate tore through an aging and severely overcrowded Honduran prison, burning and suffocating inmates in their locked cells and killing as many as 356 people in one of the world’s deadliest prison fires in a century, authorities said Wednesday.
The local governor, a former prison employee, told reporters that an inmate called her moments before the fire and said he was going to set the 1940s-era facility on fire and kill everyone inside.
Survivors told investigators that an unidentified inmate screamed "We will all die here!" as he lit fire to his bedding late Tuesday night in the prison in the central town of Comayagua. The lockup housed people convicted of serious crimes such as homicide and armed robbery.
The blaze spread within minutes, killing about 100 inmates in their cells as firefighters struggled to find officials who had keys, Comayagua fire department spokesman Josue Garcia said. Prisons in the U.S. and other more developed nations have locks that can be released automatically in an emergency.
"We couldn’t get them out because we didn’t have the keys and couldn’t find the guards who had them," Garcia said.
Six drowned after trying to seek refuge in a water tank inside the prison. 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 grow corn and beans on a state-run farm for sale in the neighboring town. Rescuers carried shirtless, semi-conscious prisoners from the facility by their arms and legs. One hauled a victim away from the fire by piggyback.
"I saw the smoke from cell block 6 and it spread throughout the prison," said Ever Lopez, 24, who was serving time for homicide. "The other prisoners and I broke through the roof with our bare hands and fled. Thank God I’m alive."
Paola Castro, the governor of Comayagua state, said at a press conference that she had received a call several minutes before the first reports of a fire from a prisoner whom she did not name, who told her that "I will set this place on fire and we are all going to die!"
Officials have long had little control of conditions inside many Honduran prisons, where inmates have largely unfettered access to mobile phones and other contraband. A woman visiting her partner was among the victims.
Castro once worked as a secretary at the prison and is known by many inmates. She said she called the Red Cross and firefighters immediately to alert them of the danger.
Two employees of a hotel near the prison told The Associated Press that firefighters took between 20 and 30 minutes to arrive, and by then the flames had nearly subsided. The local fire chief said his men were there within 10 minutes.
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 had been 60 prisoners packed into his cell.
Some 475 people escaped and 356 are missing and presumed dead, said Hector Ivan Mejia, a spokesman for the Honduras Security Ministry. He said 21 people had been injured.
A 1930 prison fire in Ohio killed at least 320 prisoners.
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.
According to government statistics, the Comayagua prison was built in the 1940s for 400 people but held more than 800 prisoners watched over by about 100 guards.
"It’s strange because the Comayagua prison has been a model of tranquility," Castro told reporters.
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said on national television that he had suspended the country’s top penal officials and said he would request international assistance in carrying out a thorough and transparent investigation.
"This is a day of profound sadness," he said.
Outraged relatives of dead inmates tried to storm the gates of the prison Wednesday morning to recover the remains of their loves ones, witnesses told The Associated Press. The crowds were driven back by police officers firing tear gas.
Channel 5 television showed dozens of inmates’ relatives hurling rocks at officers.
"We want to see the body," said Juan Martinez, whose son was reported dead. "We’ll be here until we get to do that."
The prison housed people convicted of serious crimes such as murder, Danilo Orellana, director of the national prison system, told The Associated Press. The convicts are allowed to work outside, however, unlike those held in a maximum-security facility for the most dangerous prisoners in the capital.
It sits in the middle of irrigated fields and several large ponds, and appears to be comprised of eight buildings set closely together. Beyond the fields are the city streets of the town of Comayagua. A single dirt, tree-lined road leads in, passing a soccer field on the property. There is an open, dirt prison yard within the central compound.
A few blocks from the prison, Comayagua bustles with fast-food restaurants, hotels and gas stations.
Fire officials said the fire started around 10:50 p.m. Tuesday when the inmate set his bedding alight.
"Some of his cellmates said that he screamed: ‘We will all die here!’ And in five minutes everything burned," Orellana said. He did not identify the man or speculate about his motivation. Leonel Silva, fire chief in Comayagua, a town 90 miles (140 kilometers) north of the capital, confirmed Orellana’s account to reporters on the scene.
A 2004 prison fire killed more than 100 incarcerated gang members in a state prison north of the Honduran capital. A fire a year earlier at a nearby facility killed 70 gang members. In 1994, a fire sparked by an overheated refrigerator motor in an overcrowded Honduras prison killed 103 people.
Honduran authorities have repeatedly pledged to improve conditions but human rights groups say little has been done in the country of 7.6 million people, a major transit route for drugs headed from South America to the United States.
The U.S. State Department has criticized Honduras for "harsh prison conditions" and violence against detainees.
"This is a problem that’s existed for a long time and the solutions haven’t been applied, but now we have to do something even though we don’t have the money," Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla told reporters.
The U.S. sent help from a base at Soto Cano Air Base, about 15 minutes away.
U.S. Military Staff Sgt. Bryan Franks said smoke was no longer visible above the city, and that his team included four vehicles made up of a 10-man medical team, security guards and firefighters.
Hundreds of relatives rushed to Santa Teresa Hospital in Comayagua state to learn the fate of their loved ones, Silva said.
Lucy Marder, chief of forensic medicine for the prosecutor’s office, said she believed the death toll would rise and it would take at least three months to identify victims, some burned beyond recognition, because DNA tests will be required.
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 Alberto Arce, Martha Mendoza and Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City contributed to this report.