It was the world’s deadliest prison fire in a century – 358 people have been confirmed dead at the Comayagua prison in Honduras, many of them locked in their cells, still awaiting trial. Over half the 800 inmates housed in the overcrowded facility (57%) had never been convicted of any crime. Many of the “suspected gang members” in the prison may have been incarcerated merely for having tattoos – part of a strict anti-gang law that’s been decried by the UN.
The stories of the survivors are harrowing: many climbed the walls and tried to break through the ceiling to escape, as rescuers searched for the keys. Bodies were found piled in bathrooms, where inmates attempted to ward off the flames with the showers, bathtubs and sinks.
The Guardian calls the conditions at the overcrowded facility “a tragedy waiting to happen,” and points out that such conditions are typical of Latin American prisons. A report obtained by AP confirms that over 800 inmates were packed into the facility, which was originally only built to accommodate 500 men.
The number of guards on duty? Only 51 during the day – and on the night of the fire, there were only 6 guards on staff. Only one of them held the keys. The conditions only get worse from there. The budget for food at the facility was less than $1 per inmate each day. There was no medical care of any kind available for the prisoners. In the cells, bunks were stacked four high.
The fire was started by an inmate, possibly as part of an escape attempt. He even called the state governor and screamed that he would burn the prison down before lighting his mattress on fire. Firefighters were nearby, arriving within ten minutes at the scene.
The fire could have been stopped early on – if guards hadn’t held fire crews and rescuers outside for a full 30 minutes, saying they were worried the screaming inside indicated a riot. Once they were allowed in, they couldn’t find keys or guards to unlock affected areas. Nearby US military forces had search and rescue teams and fire squads which were never dispatched.
Now, the families of the dead are gathered outside the prison, grieving for their loved ones. Identification of the bodies is going to be a daunting task: many have been so badly burned they will need to be identified using fingerprints and dental records. Six of the bodies are so damaged that even those measures will not yield any information. More than 800 grieving relatives are staying in temporary housing nearby, waiting for the bodies of their loved ones.
Photo credit: miss_millions