Honduran inmates tell of horror as hundreds die

By Marcos Aleman

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Feb. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Relatives of inmate Nery Ricardo Gomez hold onto a framed portrait of him as they grieve during his burial service at the cemetery in Comayagua, Honduras, Saturday Feb. 18, 2012.

Esteban Felix, Associated Press

COMAYAGUA, Honduras — Jose Enrique Guevara woke up to screams and a flash of heat from the fire about to engulf his prison bunk bed.

As flames devoured men around him and tore at his back, Guevara bolted for a corner, seeking to escape the conflagration. But the only door to the overcrowded barracks was locked.

"You can't imagine what it's like, knowing that everyone is burning, hearing and seeing how they cry as they're eaten by flames," said Guevara, 33, who was serving an 11-year sentence for auto theft in the Comayagua prison. "It all happened in seconds."

As scores around him died, Guevara survived only by a fellow inmate's act of heroism: the man picked up a bench and smashed the lock.

Only three of 105 inmates in Guehis dormitory survived the worst prison fire in a century. In all, 358 perished in the blaze that broke out just before 11 p.m. local time Tuesday, including a woman who had come to the medium-security farm prison to spend Valentine's Day with her husband.

Flames rapidly devoured five of 10 brick barracks as rescuers waited nearly half an hour to enter, saying they were deterred by guards and gunfire.

By week's end, investigators and bereaved family members were spreading conflicting versions of what happened. One theory was that a prisoner, drugged up and angry, set fire to his mattress after no one visited him on a day celebrating love.

Others claimed the fire was started by two prisoners fighting over a mattress. Some enraged family members said it was set intentionally by guards who shot at the inmates, much like a 2003 prison fire in Honduras that killed 69.

The prison was at double capacity, 852 men supervised that night by only six guards. One of them, Fidel Tejada, said he saw flames from his watch tower and fired into the air to signal an emergency. He said laws prohibited him from leaving his post to help with a rescue.

Prisoners' metal bunks were not only stacked four high, but were tightly packed in rows, filled with clothes and other belongings and separated by curtains the men set up for privacy. Guevara ran a little store on the side, selling cigarettes, sodas and candy that he kept by his bed. Some men had gas and matches.

It all became fuel in a packed and locked room.

More than half the inmates were still awaiting trial. Many of those who died had been locked up for petty crimes: stealing a wallet, robbing a truck. Some had never been charged.

Guevara, who had been a rancher in northern Honduras, insisted his conviction was a case of mistaken identity by police who hauled him away as a car thief.

Now he had served five years in the prison farm, where he tilled fields of corn and beans and tended to the pigs with fellow prisoners.

He had been asleep for two hours when the fire broke out. He doesn't know how or where it started, somewhere in the back of the barracks. Guevara's bunk was right next to the door.

Only one guard had a set of keys to the prison, and inmates allege he panicked when he saw the flames.

For many, salvation came from Marcos Antonio Bonilla, an inmate known as "Shorty," who was outside the cells when the fire began due to his work as a prison nurse.

Some said he picked up the keys the panicked guard had dropped. Others say they grabbed them. Either way, he unlocked the doors of blazing barracks and smashed the locks when he couldn't use keys.

He is credited with freeing hundreds of men, including Guevara.

"Shorty was the only one with honor," said prisoner Rosendo Sanchez, who had separate quarters and special privileges because he was about to complete his sentence.

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