Honduras mourn prison fire deaths
16 February 2012, 17:10
Honduras - 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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