Honduran inmates tell of horror as hundreds die

Relatives of inmate Nery Ricardo Gomez hold onto a framed portrait of him as they grieve on his coffin during his burial service at the cemetery in Comayagua, Honduras, Saturday Feb. 18, 2012. Gomez perished in the fire that swept through the Comayagua prison north of Tegucigalpa late Tuesday. A Honduran doctor said Saturday morning that another man has died from injuries sustained in the deadly prison fire, bringing the death toll to 358. AP Photo/Esteban Felix

COMAYAGUA, Honduras - Jose Enrique Guevara woke up to screams and a flash of heat from the fire about to engulf his prison bunk bed.

As flames devoured men around him and tore at his back, Guevara bolted for a corner, seeking to escape the conflagration. But the only door to the overcrowded barracks was locked.

"You can't imagine what it's like, knowing that everyone is burning, hearing and seeing how they cry as they're eaten by flames," said Guevara, 33, who was serving an 11-year sentence for auto theft in the Comayagua prison. "It all happened in seconds."

As scores around him died, Guevara survived only by a fellow inmate's act of heroism: the man picked up a bench and smashed the lock.

Only three of 105 inmates in Guehis dormitory survived the worst prison fire in a century. In all, 358 perished in the blaze that broke out just before 11 p.m. local time Tuesday, including a woman who had come to the medium-security farm prison to spend Valentine's Day with her husband.

Flames rapidly devoured five of 10 brick barracks as rescuers waited nearly half an hour to enter, saying they were deterred by guards and gunfire.

By week's end, investigators and bereaved family members were spreading conflicting versions of what happened. One theory was that a prisoner, drugged up and angry, set fire to his mattress after no one visited him on a day celebrating love.

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Others claimed the fire was started by two prisoners fighting over a mattress. Some enraged family members said it was set intentionally by guards who shot at the inmates, much like a 2003 prison fire in Honduras that killed 69.

The prison was at double capacity, 852 men supervised that night by only six guards. One of them, Fidel Tejada, said he saw flames from his watch tower and fired into the air to signal an emergency. He said laws prohibited him from leaving his post to help with a rescue.

Prisoners' metal bunks were not only stacked four high, but were tightly packed in rows, filled with clothes and other belongings and separated by curtains the men set up for privacy. Guevara ran a little store on the side, selling cigarettes, sodas and candy that he kept by his bed. Some men had gas and matches.

It all became fuel in a packed and locked room.

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More than half the inmates were still awaiting trial. Many of those who died had been locked up for petty crimes: stealing a wallet, robbing a truck. Some had never been charged.

Guevara, who had been a rancher in northern Honduras, insisted his conviction was a case of mistaken identity by police who hauled him away as a car thief.

Now he had served five years in the prison farm, where he tilled fields of corn and beans and tended to the pigs with fellow prisoners.

He had been asleep for two hours when the fire broke out. He doesn't know how or where it started, somewhere in the back of the barracks. Guevara's bunk was right next to the door.

Only one guard had a set of keys to the prison, and inmates allege he panicked when he saw the flames.

For many, salvation came from Marcos Antonio Bonilla, an inmate known as "Shorty," who was outside the cells when the fire began due to his work as a prison nurse.

Some said he picked up the keys the panicked guard had dropped. Others say they grabbed them. Either way, he unlocked the doors of blazing barracks and smashed the locks when he couldn't use keys.

He is credited with freeing hundreds of men, including Guevara.

"Shorty was the only one with honor," said prisoner Rosendo Sanchez, who had separate quarters and special privileges because he was about to complete his sentence.

Other prisoners broke out any way they could, many punching with their bare hands through the corrugated metal roofs and jumping.

Jose Lorenzo Garcia, 51, who was next door to Guevara in cell block 5, broke both legs in the fall.

Mauricio Contreras, 34, fractured a leg the same way. Before he jumped he saw 20 prisoners trapped by fire. And one 300-pound prisoner exploded in the flames.

"I'd never seen anything like that, not even in the movies," he said. "It was horrible, but we couldn't stop, no matter what."

Other prisoners ran to the bathrooms or to storage tanks of water, which they thought would shield them from the flames.

The only female victim, Kathia Gisela Figueroa Franco, died as her husband, Jaime Willian Aguirrez, tried to protect her from the flames.

"He put her in a water tank to save her, but she apparently died of asphyxiation," said her father, Carlos Roberto Figueroa.

She left behind four young daughters.

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The prison had no emergency evacuation plan. The same sort of overcrowding and lack of preparation exists in all of Honduras' 24 prisons, according to Honduran officials and the Inter American Court on Human Rights, and many of the facilities are in far worse shape than Comayagua.

By the time firefighters with two trucks and an ambulance entered the prison, some 30 minutes after the initial call, half of the prison was engulfed in flames and hundreds were already dead. They too worked frantically to locate the keys and evacuate inmates farther from the burning cell blocks who survived unscathed.

The injured were made to sit down outside while they awaited medical help.

The fire was out by 1 a.m. Wednesday, according to the guards, two hours after the first call. Firefighters have not released the official report on the blaze.

Once the rescuers got into Guverra's Block 6 and those surrounding it, they found dozens of charred, frozen bodies in sinks, showers and other rooms like piles of discarded, coal-colored mannequins.

Only the burned rims of the bunks remained, all blacked and some starting to fall. The sheet metal roof was gone. The floors were scattered with burned debris, glass, metal and wood.

Outside, workers began to cover the prison grounds in white body bags.

By morning, some prisoners were helping with the cleanup.

Human rights commissioner and congresswoman Welsy Vasquez questioned why they were cleaning a crime scene when the investigation had not been completed.

"We need to for the health of the prisoners who remain inside," said Elder Madrid, director of police intelligence.

The bodies were trucked to the morgue in Tegucigalpa, where relatives gathered outside, grief-stricken and beaten by the sun as they waited for news. Women sat on plastic folding chairs, slumped in grief, or wandered and broke into spontaneous tearful hugs with other relatives. The men seemed silently angry.

Medical student Mario Rivera, 23, showed up to offer food to those waiting outside. His classes were canceled because the pathology labs were being used to identify victims.

"This was a tragedy foretold," he said.

In Comayagua, Guevara recalled his nightmare on Thursday, sitting on the corner of a hospital bed because he was too burned to lie down. Much of his back was exposed flesh, now covered in white cream. Holding ice to his head, he paused periodically, nearly breaking into tears from agony despite being injected with painkillers.

Other survivors were in the surgical burn unit, where visitors couldn't go for fear of contamination.

By Friday, relatives of inmates who perished were at the local cemetery with shovels and pickaxes, digging their loved ones' graves.

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