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Prison fire exposes dysfunction

By Martha Mendoza And Mark Stevenson

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 8:21 p.m. MST

Inmates who survived a deadly prison fire put on gloves before cleaning within the prison perimeter in Comayagua, Honduras, early Thursday Feb. 16, 2012. A fire started by an inmate tore through the prison Tuesday night, killing 358 people, according to officials. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

Associated Press

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 of Tegucigalpa on Thursday 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 less-charred victims who had been identified.

Most relatives said they didn't believe the authorities' account that a prisoner set a mattress on fire late Tuesday after threatening to burn down Comayagua prison, located 55 miles (90 kilometers) 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 a weeping Manuela Alvardo, whose 34-year-old son died. He was to have been released in May after serving a murder sentence.

"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 conditions inside the prison that led to catastrophe.

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.

"It would be a criminal act," Tejeda said Thursday, standing in uniform outside the prison, rifle in hand.

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, braving the scorching heat, went from one cell block to another, opening doors.

"He went into the flames and started breaking the locks," said Jose Enrique Guevara, who was five years into an 11-year sentence for auto theft. "He saved us, I tell you."

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 Thursday, 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, sleeping in bunk beds piled four high and reaching to the ceiling.

Bodies were piled in the bathrooms, where inmates apparently fled to the showers, hoping the water would save them from blistering flames. Prisoners perished clutching each other in bathtubs and curled up in laundry sinks.

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