- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A fire started by an inmate tore through a severely crowded Honduran prison, burning and suffocating inmates in their locked cells and killing as many as 350 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 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 in the prison in the central town of Comayagua. The lockup held people convicted of serious crimes such as murder 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.

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

Others 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 convicted of crimes grow corn and beans on a state-run farm.

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. He told her, “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 cellphones and other contraband.

Ms. 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 threat.

Almost 500 people escaped and an estimated 350 are missing and presumed dead, said Hector Ivan Mejia, a spokesman for the Honduras Security Ministry. He said 21 people had been injured.

Honduras has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, and its crowded and dilapidated prisons have been rocked by a string of deadly riots and fires in recent years. Officials have pledged to improve conditions, but concede they don’t have sufficient funds.

According to government statistics, the Comayagua prison was built in the 1940s for 400 people but held more than 800 prisoners watched over by about 100 guards.

Lucy Marder, chief of forensic medicine for the prosecutor’s office, said she believed the death toll would rise and that it would take at least three months to identify victims, some burned beyond recognition, because DNA tests will be required.

Honduras has 24 prisons, 23 for men or both genders, and one exclusively for women. In December, the total prison population was 11,846 of which 411 were women.