Honduras prison fire victims 'burned up against the bars, stuck to them'

Survivors accuse guards of ignoring cries for help as teams of rescuers begin to try to identify some 358 charred bodies

Forensic teams in Honduras have begun trying to identify remains of the estimated 358 prisoners who died in a prison fire earlier this week, as harrowing new details about the inferno emerged.

A team of 14 experts from Chile – including an anthropologist, archaeologist, biochemists, forensic odontologists and other medical specialists – will help their Honduran colleagues examine the charred bodies and ruins of the Penitenciaria Nacional de Comayagua.

Workers in white suits and masks were on Thursday stacking black body bags at morgues in the capital, Tegucigalpa, amid sobs and shouts from relatives assembled outside, clamouring for news of what is thought to have been the world's worst prison fire in a century.

Flames swept through the jail, which housed some 850 inmates, on Tuesday night shortly after an unnamed inmate phoned the state governor and screamed he was going to burn the place down. He reportedly lit a mattress a few minutes later. The motive remained unclear but there was speculation his girlfriend had finished with him – Tuesday was Valentine's day.

Within minutes, cells were filled with screaming, suffocating, burning men. Guards feared a riot and escape attempt and so fired in the air, kept doors padlocked and barred the fire brigade for at least half an hour.

"It was something horrible," survivor Eladio Chica, 40, said as he was led, handcuffed, to testify in court about what he witnessed. "I only saw flames, and when we got out, men were being burned, up against the bars, they were stuck to them."

Survivors accused guards of ignoring calls for help. "We said: 'Guards, we're burning, we're dying, open the cells.' But the guards didn't want to help, they let the people die," one inmate, Antonio Valladaras, told local radio.

The blaze destroyed six barracks, each holding between 70 and 105 inmates in four levels of bunk beds. Some prisoners fled to the showers hoping, in vain, the water would save them. Some of their remains were found in baths and laundry sinks. In one sink two bodies, completely black, sat facing each other.

Others scaled walls to break the sheet metal roofing. Some escaped, others burned to death on the metal. "The corpses are charred and some of them are stuck on top of each other," Johnny Ordenez, a Honduran soldier carrying the dead, told Reuters. "You have to peel them apart like an orange."

Reporters allowed into the site said the odour of charred flesh hung in the air. In the corner of one cell a scorched cadaver lay face down on the floor, both legs pulled up close to the foetal position, an arm outstretched. In a recreational area an acoustic guitar lay on a blood-soaked floor next to the burned remnants of pool tables.

More than half the inmates were awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members, according to a report sent by the Honduran government this month to the United Nations, and seen by Associated Press. It said on any given day there were about 800 inmates in a facility built for 500. There were 51 guards by day and 12 at night when the fire happened.

Four foreigners – a Brazilian, Guatemalan, Mexican and Salvadorean – were among the dead.

The prison had no medical or mental healthcare and the budget allowed less than $1 (64p) per day per prisoner for food. Under Honduras's tough anti-gang laws, suspects can be jailed simply for having a tattoo – a practice condemned by the UN.

President Porfirio Lobo suspended the national prison system director, Danilo Orellana, and other senior prison officials pending an investigation.

Families who rushed to the scene on Wednesday and clashed with police, wereon Thursday bussed to the capital, 55 miles south, and offered accommodation in hotels and hostels while the arduous identification of corpses began. Forensic teams and social workers will seek dental records, photographs and blood samples from relatives.

The tragedy has shocked even Honduras, which has the world's highest murder rate. The once-sleepy central American banana exporter has in recent years become a cauldron of narcotraffickers, youth gangs and corrupt security forces.

Despair over the insecurity prompted some to express macabre glee over the death of so many prisoners, regardless that many had not been tried or convicted. "Today their families are feeling the pain of families whose loved ones were killed by the murderers who were in that jail," wrote one reader to La Prensa. "Only 300, oh noooo," wrote another. "I thought they'd all boiled."


Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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