COMAYAGUA, Honduras _ Charred bodies of inmates remained in the burned hulk of the Comayagua National Penitentiary on Wednesday night, nearly 24 hours after an inmate apparently set a mattress ablaze and triggered a conflagration that left as many as 350 prisoners dead.
The fire, which started at 10:50 p.m. Tuesday at the prison, took firefighters three hours to douse. Guards fired their guns repeatedly to keep screaming trapped inmates from escaping.
“It is a day of deep pain for Honduras,” President Porfirio Lobo said in a brief televised address, acknowledging that a criminal hand may have been behind the disaster.
“We will conduct an investigation to determine what provoked this lamentable and unacceptable tragedy and find those responsible,” Lobo said.
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The death toll climbed throughout the day. By noon, Security Minister J. Pompeyo Bonilla said he believed “more than 300” were dead. National Prison Director Danilo Orellana told Honduran media that the toll had gone past 350 inmates. At least one woman inside the prison illegally was said to be among the fatalities.
Hundreds of prisoners were also burned in the blaze, or suffered injuries when they broke through a roof and jumped to safety, hospital officials said.
Journalists were permitted into the charred facility late Wednesday, observing a series of completely burned-out brick buildings crammed with the black shells of bunk beds.
In the back part of one cellblock, each of which housed 70 to 100 inmates, a bathroom indicated the horrors faced by the inmates trapped inside: It contained close to a dozen calcified bodies of men who attempted to climb over the sinks to the roof. They didn't make it. Their bodies melted together in permanent embrace, expressions of horror on their faces.
Hundreds of relatives clung to a chain link fence at the entrance of the penitentiary Wednesday night as soldiers loaded the bagged bodies of dead prisoners onto container trucks. Earlier in the day, police used tear gas to quell anguished relatives throwing rocks and pushing at the gates of the prison to enter and search for loved ones.
Authorities said there were at least 475 survivors and at least 350 dead but couldn't give exact figures. An unknown number are assumed to have escaped.
"Until we load up all of the cadavers, I won't be able to give you a count," said Bonilla. "By far, this is the worst tragedy our penitentiary system has seen."
Bonilla said the fire underscored “the dramatic situation in terms of security” that afflicts the Central American nation, which is on a major narcotics corridor and has been overrun by organized crime.
“We have lost control to a certain point of actions that we must forcefully take in benefit of Honduran society,” Bonilla said earlier in the day outside the prison, which is about 55 miles north of Tegucigalpa, the capital.
Riot police closed off all public access to the morgue in Tegucigalpa, where bodies were taken as relatives clamored for information about the identities of the victims.
Bonilla said investigators were combing through the charred scene to determine what sparked the blaze in cellblock six.
National Prisons Director Orellana said early indications were that “an inmate may have caused the fire by setting his mattress alight. Some of his cellmates said that he shouted, ‘We will all die here,’ and within five minutes everything was burning.”
Photos showed metal cell bars that had twisted and melted from the heat.
Security agents outside the one-story prison wore surgical masks as the stench of burned flesh lingered. White body bags piled up outside the yellow entrance to the prison.
“When the fire started, we shouted at (the guards) with keys but they wouldn’t open for us. In fact, they fired at us,” inmate Ruben Garcia told El Heraldo newspaper.
As the raging fire consumed more of the prison, guards ushered survivors out of the jail. Many emerged shirtless, bearing burn marks on their tattooed torsos.
Injured prisoners were taken to hospitals in Comayagua and Tegucigalpa.
Chile sent a team of forensic specialists to help identify the victims, but authorities said the process could take days.
“The majority of the victims are unrecognizable,” said Daniela Ferrera of the State Attorney General’s Office.
President Lobo said he’d barred national prison authorities from taking part in the investigation of the fire to ensure that the probe is transparent and thorough.
At least two human rights organizations _ the private Human Rights Watch and the official Inter-American Human Rights Commission _ called on Honduras to ensure that its prisoners are kept in safe conditions.
In a statement, the commission said it had made “an urgent call on the state to adopt necessary measures so that this tragedy can be duly investigated and avoid its repetition.”
The minimum-security prison farm held 845 inmates, more than double its official capacity of 400. The Comayagua penitentiary is less than a mile from the major highway that connects the two largest cities in Honduras, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, a manufacturing hub.
At the prison farm, inmates grew vegetables and raised pigs.
The Soto Cano air base staffed by at least 600 U.S. military personnel is less than five miles from the facility.
Honduras’s 24 prisons house 13,000 inmates, far more than their 8,000-inmate capacity, and corruption among guards and wardens is said to be rampant in controlling relatives’ access to inmates and allowing entry of food and other goods.
Fires have regularly broken out in the penitentiaries. In May 2004, a fire at a San Pedro Sula prison killed 107 inmates, most of them members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang. A year earlier, 68 inmates died in an El Porvenir prison fire near La Ceiba on the north coast. (Sanchez of El Nuevo Herald reported from Comayagua; Johnson reported from Mexico City.)
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