Horror, mercy marked Honduras prison fire

CHRISTINE ARMARIO Associated Press Published:

COMAYAGUA, Honduras -- Hector Daniel Martinez was asleep in a small metal bed, one of dozens stacked so high in a narrow barrack that they nearly touched the roof, when the flames started.

The fire raced above Martinez's head, and he could hear the screams of prisoners.

Martinez, 32 and a homicide suspect, ran toward the barrack's single entrance. The door was locked. Most of the other 135 prisoners in the room ran toward the other end, where there was a bathroom with water and sinks.

It turned out to be a fatal choice. Martinez survived after a nurse came with the keys and opened the door. He was only one of 28 inside the barrack who did.

"One hundred and seven are dead," he said, his face conveying little emotion, as if a toll too difficult to believe.

In all, the fire at an overcrowded prison in Honduras killed 358 people, officials confirmed Wednesday, making it the world's deadliest prison fire in a century. The local governor said an inmate called her moments before the blaze and screamed that he was going to set the prison on fire.

Comayagua Gov. Paola Castro said she called the Red Cross and fire brigade immediately but firefighters said they were kept outside for half an hour by guards who fired their guns in the air, thinking they had a riot or a breakout on their hands.

As the investigation continued into the night, a group of inmates remained guarded by officers inside the prison grounds. They described a chaotic scene as the fire broke out and raced from one barrack to another, all filled with highly flammable curtains and mattresses.

When the fire was extinguished, all that remained of several barracks were the brick exteriors, painted with murals of Jesus Christ, saints and verses from the Book of Psalms. Inside, the metal cots, stacked four high and at least a dozen across, were charred and falling down.

At the end of each barrack was a bathroom with sinks and tubs. Wednesday evening, there were still numerous bodies inside several of the bathrooms.

In one large sink sat the bodies of two prisoners facing one another. Their remains were completely black.

Others were squished together, their bodies indistinguishable.

"In the other cells we found them in the same positions," said state prosecutor German Enamorado.

Selbim Adonay, 18, another homicide suspect, said he was trapped behind the metal door leading inside his barrack, unable to do anything as the flames spread and prisoners screamed.

"We couldn't do anything because we were locked inside," Adonay said. He was also released by the nurse.

Martinez said dozens of the prisoners in his barrack sought refuge from the heat in a bathroom, where the sinks and tubs were filled with water. Some may have tried climbing on top of one another to reach the roof, Enamorado said.

From the front entrance of the barrack, prisoners watched helplessly as the guard carrying the keys fled without opening the door.

"He threw the keys on the floor in panic," Martinez said, a dust mask hanging from his neck.

A prisoner who also served as a nurse picked up the keys and went from one barrack to another, opening doors in a barely survivable heat, Martinez said.

But by that time, it was already too late for hundreds of prisoners.