Honduras mourns prison fire deaths

2012-02-16 14:45

Comayagua - Honduras on Thursday mourned the more than 350 people who died when fire swept through an overcrowded prison in the Central American country, leaving charred bodies trapped in locked cells.

Survivors described wrenching scenes of prisoners engulfed by smoke and flames pleading for help, some unable to flee because they were 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, while others escaped by jumping from the prison rooftop.

There were reports that others fled the crowded facility in the central Honduran city of Comayagua and were on the loose. Honduras - like much of Central America - has been gripped by drug violence in recent years.

Most of the prison fire deaths were caused 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 said.

Full investigation

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 this 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 on Tuesday night (local time), and burned for around three hours before it was brought 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 his fellow prisoners trapped in their cells, 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, aged 23, said, as he was being treated for a broken ankle after jumping to safety from a wall.

Charred remains

Fabricio Contreras, aged 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 on 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, aged 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 - and throughout Latin America - are notoriously overcrowded. The country's 24 penal facilities officially have room for 8 000 inmates, but actually house 13 000.

Probe launched

The prison in Comayagua, located around 90km north of the 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 centre of Honduras, with the capital.

The Organisation of American States in Washington said it was launching a probe into the disaster.

Governor 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 of their loved ones, clashed with police and then stormed the prison gates early on Wednesday.

Families frustrated

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."