- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A fire started by an inmate tore through an aging and severely overcrowded Honduran prison, burning and suffocating inmates in their locked cells and killing as many as 356 people in one of the world’s deadliest prison fires in a century, authorities said Wednesday.

The local governor, a former prison employee, told reporters that an inmate called her moments before the fire and said he was going to set the 1940s-era facility on fire and kill everyone inside.

Survivors told investigators that an unidentified inmate screamed “We will all die here!” as he lit fire to his bedding late Tuesday night in the prison in the central town of Comayagua. The lockup housed people convicted of serious crimes such as homicide and armed robbery.

The blaze spread within minutes, killing about 100 inmates in their cells as firefighters struggled to find officials who had keys, Comayagua fire department spokesman Josue Garcia said. Prisons in the U.S. and other more developed nations have locks that can be released automatically in an emergency.

“We couldn’t get them out because we didn’t have the keys and couldn’t find the guards who had them,” Garcia said.

Six drowned after trying to seek refuge in a water tank inside the prison. Other prisoners were set free by guards but died from the flames or smoke as they tried to flee into the fields surrounding the facility, where prisoners grow corn and beans on a state-run farm for sale in the neighboring town. Rescuers carried shirtless, semi-conscious prisoners from the facility by their arms and legs. One hauled a victim away from the fire by piggyback.

“I saw the smoke from cell block 6 and it spread throughout the prison,” said Ever Lopez, 24, who was serving time for homicide. “The other prisoners and I broke through the roof with our bare hands and fled. Thank God I’m alive.”

Paola Castro, the governor of Comayagua state, said at a press conference that she had received a call several minutes before the first reports of a fire from a prisoner whom she did not name, who told her that “I will set this place on fire and we are all going to die!”

Officials have long had little control of conditions inside many Honduran prisons, where inmates have largely unfettered access to mobile phones and other contraband. A woman visiting her partner was among the victims.

Castro once worked as a secretary at the prison and is known by many inmates. She said she called the Red Cross and firefighters immediately to alert them of the danger.

Two employees of a hotel near the prison told The Associated Press that firefighters took between 20 and 30 minutes to arrive, and by then the flames had nearly subsided. The local fire chief said his men were there within 10 minutes.

A prisoner identified as Silverio Aguilar told HRN Radio that he first knew something was wrong when he heard a scream of “Fire! fire!”

“For a while, nobody listened. But after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a guard appeared with keys and let us out,” he said.

He said there had been 60 prisoners packed into his cell.

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