Honduras medics and international experts on Thursday worked to identify the charred remains of inmates killed when fire swept through an overcrowded prison, killing more than 350 people.
The first 115 bodies were transported to the mortuary in the capital Tegucigalpa overnight, Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla told AFP, as relatives mourned those killed in the world’s worst prison fire in a decade.
Survivors described wrenching scenes of prisoners pleading for help, many unable to flee locked cells engulfed in smoke and flames, with some diving into showers and sinks and others jumping from the prison rooftop.
There were reports that others had 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,” Bonilla said.
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 Wednesday.
The inferno broke out at around 10:50 pm Tuesday (0450 GMT Wednesday), 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 state governor Paola Castro later told AFP that her office had received a phone call from someone claiming to be an inmate, telling her that another prisoner had set the fire in a suicide attempt.
Police spokesman Hector Ivan Mejia insisted firefighters arrived on the scene within 15 minutes of the blaze.
But 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 to all the screaming from my fellow inmates,” Sevilla, 23, told AFP, as he was treated for a broken ankle after jumping over a wall to safety.
Fabricio Contreras, 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 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, 69, at a local hospital.
“The guards wouldn’t open the door and (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.
The prison in Comayagua, located some 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, held almost double its official inmate capacity.
The facility is also just 500 meters (yards) from a highway that links San Pedro Sula, the economic center of Honduras, with the capital.
The Organization of American States in Washington said it was launching a probe into the disaster, and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton expressed her “great sorrow” over the disaster.
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 Wednesday.
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 told AFP. “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.”