Frantic relatives besiege Chile jail where fire kills 81 prisoners

Fire engulfed a prison in the Chilean capital Santiago early yesterday, killing 81 inmates and critically injuring 14 others, prison officials said, in the worst-ever accident in the country's penal system.

Officials said the fire was deliberately started during an early-morning fight between inmates in one of the crowded prison's five towers. Television footage showed part of the San Miguel prison in flames, with black smoke billowing from the building.

Frantic relatives of the inmates flooded to the jail's walls, screaming and imploring police to let them in to rescue their loved ones. Many families did not yet know their relatives' fate.

"It is exasperating not to know if they are alive or dead. We have been here for hours and they haven't told us anything," said a woman called Maria, who declined to give her surname.

Some relatives screamed when officials read out names of prisoners who had survived the blaze, assuming those not included were dead. But officials said the lists were incomplete. Some relatives threw rocks and glass bottles and scuffled with police inside the prison perimeter in frustration.

"There are 81 dead, and we hope that figure won't rise," said Luis Masferrer, director of the national prison system. "This reflects the precarious state of Chile's prison system, which we have been denouncing and working to rectify since we took over [in March].

"Overcrowding is a factor that will have to be analysed in determining the causes of this terrible incident," he said.

Justice Minister Felipe Bulnes said the prison housed 1,960 inmates, whereas its official capacity is 1,100.

Radio station Bio Bio reported that around 200 inmates had to be evacuated into a jail yard due to the fire, which a local state prosecutor said was started deliberately.