A poor response, panic and alleged corruption were all factors contributing to the deaths of more than 350 inmates in a fire at a Honduras prison.
By
AFP

Source
AFP
17 Feb 2012 - 2:34 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 9:20 AM

Human rights advocates and relatives of some of the more than 350 inmates who died in a fire Tuesday night say the deaths were unnecessary and blame the negligence of staff at this prison in northern Honduras.

The only police officer with keys to every cell had a panic attack and ran off after the fire broke out. Firefighters, some only five minutes away, weren't called until nearly 20 minutes after the first flames were spotted.

And once they arrived, they remained outside for several critical minutes after hearing gunshots from the watchtowers and the screams of dying inmates.

"What we can definitely say is that these deaths could have been avoided if the cells had simply been unlocked," said Andres Pavon, president of the Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. "We've found negligence here."

New details emerged on Thursday about the fire, during which officers began shooting into the air. Some stayed frozen in their posts, and some ran off - bolting past desperate inmates begging for their lives. Heroics were left to some prisoners.

Fire department commanders and firefighters said they did not receive an emergency call until 10.59pm Tuesday, nearly 20 minutes after the fire started.

Three firetrucks and an ambulance pulled up to the entrance of a long gravel driveway leading to the prison complex. Flames could be seen through corrugated metal roof.

Then they waited outside the gates to avoid the gunfire from four officers in separate watchtowers.

"When I got here, just minutes after I found out about the fire, the fire crews were also out here, waiting outside the front gate," said Laura Yanet, who was still waiting late Thursday to learn whether her brother-in-law had survived.

"By the time they got through the gates, everything had already burned."

Police officers denied they shot directly at prisoners, as some survivors said. Fidel Tejeda, an officer who was stationed in one of the watchtowers Tuesday night, said he and the others aimed their guns away from the prison buildings and toward the fields that surround the property.

"We were sounding the alarms, the way we're supposed to during fires and escapes," said Tejeda, who has worked at the prison for 14 years.

But authorities said there was no plan for how to deal with fires at the minimum-security prison, considered a model because inmates do agricultural work and care for livestock.

And plan or no plan, the place was overcrowded: More than 830 prisoners were housed there when the fire broke out even though the buildings are supposed to house less than 500.

Tejeda said he and his companions couldn't leave their watchtowers to help inmates, who screamed for somebody to unlock the doors of the prison's 10 buildings.

"It's against police code to abandon watch," Tejeda said.

And so, only three officers were on the grounds and only one of them had the keys. A final police officer - bringing the total to eight - watched the entrance to the prison on the outskirts of this city of about 110,000 people.

But the police officer with the keys apparently had a panic attack as he moved to unlock the doors, said Pavon and several prisoners who survived the fire. The officer, who has not been identified, dropped or threw the keys while the fire spread to five of the 10 buildings.

"Finally, one of the prisoners grabbed the keys and began opening the locks," said Roseno Sanchez Mendez, one of many prisoners who witnessed the events. Pavon confirmed that story.

The hero, Marcos Bonilla, is a prisoner with special privileges who sleeps in a house just outside the buildings. Bonilla, who was said to be a nurse, remained deep inside the prison grounds on Thursday and could not be interviewed because reporters were not allowed into the buildings.

Authorities continued to investigate what caused Tuesday's fire. Many officials said they thought it was intentional. One of the three theories being discussed Thursday was that it began with a fight between two inmates in Cell Six.

"There was a fight between two gang members over a mattress," said Elder Madrid, director of intelligence for the National Police Department. Authorities are still leaving open the possibility that it was an electrical fire, which prison officials say could have been caused by an overloaded electrical system.

Many prisoners had television sets, stereos and other devices in their cells.

A third theory was that the fire was set by prisoners in collusion with police officers, who would allow them to escape.

Pavon confirmed that investigators are analysing the bank accounts of police officials across the country.

Paola Castro, governor of Comayagua state, and other officials said Thursday that counts of the dead and the living indicate there were no escapees.

However, several men who identified themselves as escaped prisoners called into Honduran radio stations throughout the day to say there had been a conspiracy between police and some inmates.

A Honduran government report obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday indicated that many of the inmates at the Comayagua prison hadn't yet been sentenced. According to the report, 57 per cent of the inmates were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.

The bodies of 353 inmates were moved early Thursday morning to a morgue in Tegucigalpa, the country's capital.

Two more prisoners who had been burned died at a Tegucigalpa hospital, Castro said.