TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Trapped inmates screamed from their cells as a fire swept through a Honduran prison, killing at least 300 inmates, authorities said Wednesday.
Some 475 people escaped from the prison in the town of Comayagua and 356 are missing and presumed dead, said Hector Ivan Mejia, a spokesman for the Honduras Security Ministry. He said 21 people had been injured.
Dozens were trapped behind bars as prison authorities tried to find the keys, officials said.
Outraged relatives of dead inmates tried to storm the gates of the prison Wednesday morning to recover the remains of their loves ones, witnesses told The Associated Press. The crowds were driven back by police officers firing tear gas.
Channel 5 television showed dozens of inmates' relatives hurling rocks at officers.
"We want to see the body," said Juan Martinez, whose son was reported dead. "We'll be here until we get to do that."
Comayagua fire department spokesman Josue Garcia said he saw "horrific" scenes while trying to put out the fire, saying inmates rioted in attempts to escape. He said "some 100 prisoners were burned to death or suffocated in their cells."
"We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them," Garcia said.
Officials are investigating whether the fire was triggered by rioting prisoners or by an electrical short-circuit, said Danilo Orellana, head of the national prison system.
A prisoner identified as Silverio Aguilar told HRN Radio that someone started screaming, "Fire! fire!" and the prisoners called for help.
"For a while, nobody listened. But after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a guard appeared with keys and let us out," he said.
Hundreds of relatives rushed to Santa Teresa Hospital in Comayagua state to learn the fate of their loved ones, said Leonel Silva, fire chief in Comayagua, a town 90 miles (140 kilometers) north of the Central American country's capital, Tegucigalpa.
Lucy Marder, chief of forensic medicine for the prosecutor's office, said 12 victims were treated there and nine more in the Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa, bringing the total of injured to 21. "That's why we think the death toll will rise," she said.
Marder said it would take at least three months to identify victims, some burned beyond recognition, because DNA tests will be required.
President Porfirio Lobo declared an emergency in July 2010 in nine of the 24 prisons in Honduras. His security minister at the time called the prisons "universities of crime" that had been overwhelmed by overcrowding.