By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times –
MEXICO CITY — Authorities said Wednesday that a fire at a prison in central Honduras killed at least 272 trapped inmates, and perhaps more than 300, in scenes one official described as “horrific.”
Honduran authorities have yet to determine the cause of Tuesday night’s blaze at the prison in the town of Comayagua, but they said they were examining whether it might have been ignited by a riot or an electrical failure.
The death toll was expected to rise as rescue workers picked through the charred cells, where many inmates were asphyxiated or burned alive, officials said. Dozens of others, some with severe burns, were taken to hospitals in Comayagua and the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Lucy Marder, head of forensic medicine for the prosecutor’s office, provided the death toll during a news conference. Honduran media, quoting unnamed sources, said the toll could surpass 350.
Josue Garcia, spokesman for the Comayagua Fire Department, described “horrific” scenes as fire swept through the prison, He was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that about 100 prisoners died in their cells.
“We couldn’t get them out because we didn’t have the keys and couldn’t find the guards who had them,” Garcia said. It took firefighters about an hour and a half to contain the blaze, Honduran media said.
Some inmates were able to escape by breaking through the roof, Honduran media reports said. Many others remain unaccounted for.
Photographs taken at the scene showed relatives of inmates gathered outside the fence of the prison, throwing stones at guards in anger and frustration.
The federal prison in Comayagua, about 90 miles north of the capital, was described as a farm in which inmates cultivated crops and raised pigs. It held an estimated 850 prisoners.
Honduran prisons, like many in Latin America, are severely overcrowded, filthy and poorly equipped. Prisoner riots are common. Rioting at another Honduran prison in October left nine people dead.