COMAYAGUA, Honduras – 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 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.
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. Inmates were found stuck to the prison’s metal roofing, their burned bodies fused to the metal.
“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. This is a nightmare.”
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.
Comayagua was built in the 1940s for 400 inmates.
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.
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.