Experts try to identify dead of Honduran prison inferno

Fri, Feb 17, 2012, 00:00

FORENSIC TEAMS in Honduras have begun trying to identify remains of the estimated 358 inmates who died in a prison fire earlier this week, as harrowing new details about the blaze emerged.

A group 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.

Yesterday, workers were 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 prisoners, 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.

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,” said Johnny Ordenez, a Honduran soldier. “You have to peel them apart like an orange.”

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. – ( Guardianservice)