Comayagua: Survivors of a Honduran prison fire that killed more than 350 inmates accused guards of leaving inmates to die inside their cells and shooting at others who tried to escape the flames that burned victims alive.
Most of the prison inmates had not even been convicted of a crime before the huge blaze that grieving relatives, survivors and experts on Thursday blamed on massive overcrowding, negligence by the guards and a failed justice system.
"It was total chaos. People were running for their lives, shots were being fired. People were being burned alive," said prison chaplain Reynaldo Moncada, who arrived at the scene shortly after the conflagration broke out.
Unable to escape the inferno that tore through Comayagua National Penitentiary on Tuesday night, terrified prisoners perished yelling to be let out of their cells.
Rosendo Sanchez, a convicted murderer serving a 10-year sentence, awoke as the blaze started. He escaped his cell block and said he saw guards firing at other inmates trying to escape from one of the worst prison fires in history.
"It was hell here, seeing your friends, people you have known well, burn alive," said Sanchez.
Other survivors said guards ignored the cries for help and Sanchez complained the fire brigade did not come to the jailhouse for more than half an hour.
Prison guards denied they had stopped inmates from escaping.
Honduras` director of police intelligence, Elder Madrid, said the fire broke out in block six during a fight over a mattress between two inmates, one of whom set it on fire. All but four of more than 100 prisoners in the block died, he said.
But some victims` relatives said the government had been grossly negligent or had even planned the blaze. An anonymous caller called broadcaster HCH, charging that guards set the fire after a foiled escape bid by inmates.
Honduras is the most murderous country on the planet, ravaged by violent street gangs, rampant police corruption, dysfunctional courts and brutal drug cartels.
Such is the gangs` notoriety that Hondurans can be locked up simply for sporting tattoos associated with them.
Some of the 852 prisoners at the overcrowded jail managed to force their way to safety through the tin roofs of the complex, a dark, maze-like structure with narrow open-air hallways lined with white and blue brick walls.
But 359 of the prisoners never found their way out, according to the attorney general`s office.
One guard, Santorean Orellana, said it took time to open the cells because the duty officer had left the keys in a locked safe that guards needed special permission to open.
More than half the inmates had not been convicted and were awaiting trial, a rate even worse than the national average of 45 percent, according to Supreme Court figures.
Lorena Machado came to see her husband, who survived the blaze and has yet to be given a trial hearing after six months inside.
"They`re all corrupt, let us in," the 37-year-old woman screamed toward the prison, where about half the inmates remain. "They never want to tell us anything because they don`t want us to know the truth. They kill you for saying the truth here."
Claudio Saenz, a social worker who visits the jail, said some inmates had been waiting up to three years for a hearing.
Condemnation of the prison authorities spread as far as the local fire chief, who said they had stopped his crews from entering the burning prison for half an hour.
"These people in the prisons have their protocols, and while these are going on, they don`t let anybody in," Jaime Omar Silva told El Tiempo newspaper.
Throughout the night, groups of police and soldiers dragged out the charred remains of inmates in black body bags and hurled them on to a pile outside.
"The corpses are charred and some of them are stuck on top of each other," said Johnny Ordenez, a soldier lugging the dead. "You have to peel them apart like an orange."
Inside the gutted complex, the smell of charred flesh hung heavily in the air on Wednesday night. One scorched body lay face down on the floor, both legs pulled up close to the foetal position, with its arm outstretched into the corner of the cell.
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