Recrimination and horror hung over the scorched remains of a farm penitentiary in Honduras yesterday after a blaze killed an estimated 358 inmates in the worst prison fire the world has seen in a century.
The fury of relatives who swarmed the site for news about loved ones in the aftermath of Tuesday night's tragedy was compounded by news that at least half of the 856 inmates there had not been convicted of a crime or, in some cases, even charged. A US military base nearby with firefighting equipment was never asked for help.
It also emerged that the prison inmate who started the blaze had phoned the local provincial governor minutes before. "I will set this place on fire and we are all going to die," he yelled, lighting his mattress two minutes later.
Additionally, even though a local fire brigade arrived within minutes thanks to a call from the governor, they were prevented for 30 minutes from going inside by prison guards who feared they were dealing with a break-out.
The terror of the inferno was still being told last night by survivors and rescue workers sent in to the drag the last victims from the ruined prison. Numerous corpses were located in bathrooms, crammed into shower stands and laundry tubs where water had provided no protection. While some had managed to scale walls and punch through the corrugated tin roof others didn't make it; their bodies became fused to the tin by the heat. "It was something horrible," said one survivor Eladio Chica, 40, who was expected later yesterday to testify in court on what he had witnessed. "I only saw flames, and when we got out, men were being burned, up against the bars, they were stuck to them."
Some men managed to get out and flee through the surrounding corn fields. A few, who were on fire themselves, fell in the fields.
That fewer than half the inmates had been convicted of a crime was revealed in Honduran government documents provided recently to the United Nations and seen by the Associated Press. While Honduras has the worst murder rate in Latin America, it has earned an unwelcome reputation for repression and mistreatment of prisoners and suspects. A Honduran can be imprisoned for having a tattoo if police think it indicates gang membership.
The stricken Comayagua prison, meanwhile, may have boasted the most inhumane conditions of any in the country. The UN documents showed that it had no mental or medical healthcare on the site and that it was built to hold a maximum of 500 inmates. For the more than 800 prisoners who were inside this week there were only 52 guards by day and 12 during the night. The prison's budget allowed for only $1 (65p) a day for each prisoner for food.
The tragedy threatens to catapult Hondurans into fresh political turmoil only two years after a coup in the country. "We're talking about a total breakdown of the state," warned Dana Frank, an expert on Latin American affairs at the University of California, Santa Cruz.