COMAYAGUA, Honduras - Six guards, 800-plus prisoners in 10 cellblocks, one set of keys. The numbers added up to disaster when fire tore through a prison and 355 people died, many yet to even be charged with a crime, much less convicted.
The deadliest prison blaze in a century has exposed just how deep government dysfunction and confusion go in Honduras, a small Central American country with the world’s highest murder rate.
Prisoners’ scorched bodies were being brought to the capital, Tegucigalpa, yesterday for identification, a process authorities said could take weeks. Dozens of family members gathered outside the morgue wearing surgical masks against the strong smell of death as police called out the names of the few victims who had been identified.
Most relatives said they did not believe the authorities’ account that a prisoner set a mattress on fire late Tuesday after threatening to burn down Comayagua prison, located 55 miles north of Tegucigalpa.
They also faulted prison officials for failing to get help inside quickly as flames engulfed the facility. Hundreds of screaming men burned and suffocated inside their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for keys.
“Those who lock up the prisoners are in charge of their welfare. Why couldn’t they open the doors?’’ said Manuela Alvardo, whose 34-year-old son died. He was to have been released in May after serving a sentence for murder.
“It couldn’t have been a mattress fire. This guy wasn’t alone. He was in a crowded cell. The other prisoners wouldn’t have allowed that to happen. They would have put out the fire.’’
From the time firefighters received a call at 10:59 p.m., the rescue was marred by human error and prison conditions.
Only six guards were on duty, four in towers overlooking the prison and two in the facility itself, said Fidel Tejeda, who was assigned to a tower that night. One of the guards posted inside held all the keys to the prison doors, he said.
Tejeda said he fired two shots as a warning when he first saw flames about 10:50 p.m., but he said prison rules prevented him from leaving his post to help evacuate the 852 prisoners.
Survivors said they watched helplessly as the guard who had the keys fled without unlocking their cells.
“He threw the keys on the floor in panic,’’ said Hector Daniel Martinez, who was being held as a homicide suspect.
Martinez said an inmate who was not locked in because he also worked as a nurse picked up the keys and went from one cell block to another, opening doors.
“He went into the flames and started breaking the locks,’’ said Jose Enrique Guevara, who is five years into an 11-year sentence for auto theft. “He saved us.’’
Guevara said the nurse could get only a handful of the keys and had to use a bench to break the lock of the cellblock where the fire started.
But by that time, it was already too late for hundreds of prisoners.
Inside the prison yesterday, charred walls and debris showed the path of the fire, which burned through five of the 10 barracks, each crammed with 70 to 105 inmates.
Bodies were piled in the bathrooms, where inmates apparently fled to the showers, hoping the water would save them from the flames. Prisoners perished clutching each other in bathtubs and curled up in laundry sinks.
Honduras has been the site of two other major prison fires, in 2003 and 2004, that killed a total of 176 inmates. Government officials were convicted of wrongdoing in the 2003 blaze.
The United Nations recently named Honduras as the country with the world’s highest murder rate, with 82 homicides per 100,000, much of it related to drug trafficking and street gangs.
The US State Department has criticized the Honduran government for harsh prison conditions, citing severe overcrowding, malnutrition, and lack of adequate sanitation.
Howard Berman, a California Democrat and former chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, questioned US aid to Honduras last fall, saying human rights abuses involving security forces had “reached a distressing pitch.’’
“The most chilling aspect of this rather gruesome set of problems is that US government assistance is flowing into the thick of it,’’ Berman wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
A Honduran government report obtained by the AP said 57 percent of the inmates at Comayagua had not been convicted of any crime, but were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.
This is not unusual. Nationwide, more than half of the 11,000 inmates in the country’s 24 prisons are awaiting trial. Every prison is crammed with more people than it was built for, and there is rarely enough food. Prisoners are beaten and tortured, and gangs control the inside because there is, on average, just one guard for every 65 prisoners.
National prison system director Danilo Orellana declined to comment.
President Porfirio Lobo on Wednesday suspended Orellana and other top prison officials.