Locked cells hampered inmate escape from deadly Honduras prison fire

COMAYAGUA, Honduras -- Anatomy of a tragedy: The only police officer with keys to every cell had a panic attack and ran off after the fire broke out. Fire crews, some as close as a five-minute drive, were called 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 watch towers — intermixed with the screams of dying inmates.

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

“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 what’s considered one of the worst prison fires in history, a horrific scene where correctional officers began shooting into the air, stayed frozen in their posts, some ran off — bolting past desperate inmates begging for their lives — and the heroics were left to some prisoners.

Fire department commanders and firefighters told El Nuevo Herald they did not receive an emergency call until 10:59 p.m. Tuesday, nearly 20 minutes after the flames began. Three fire trucks plus an ambulance pulled up to the entrance of a long gravel driveway leading the yellow and grey prison complex. Flames a foot high were visible through corrugated metal roof.

Then they waited outside the gates to avoid the gunfire from four police officers in separate watch towers.

“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 have denied they shot directly at prisoners, as some survivors had told reporters. Fidel Tejeda, an officer who was stationed in one of the watch towers 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 working plan for how to deal with fires at the Comayagua prison, considered a model prison because inmates, all minimum-security, perform agricultural work and care for livestock here. 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 watch towers to help the inmates, who screamed for somebody to unlock the doors of the 10 buildings that make up the prison.

“It’s against police code to abandon watch,” Tejeda explained.

And so, a mere 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, which sits 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 Pavón, as well as several prisoners who survived the inferno. The officer, who has not been identified, dropped or threw the keys while the fire spread to five of the 10 buildings that housed inmates.

“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 this story.

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

Authorities continued to investigate what caused Tuesday’s fire although many officials said they think it was intentional. One of the three theories being tossed around Thursday was that it all 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 de intelligence for the National Police Department.Authorities are still leaving open the possibility 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 bunk beds.

A third possibility hit the Honduran radio airwaves early on Thursday: the fire was intentionally set by prisoners in collusion with police officers, who would allow them to escape. In fact, Pavón confirmed that investigators are now analyzing the bank accounts of police officials across the country.

Castro and other officials said on Thursday that the tallies 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, some 57 percent of the inmates were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.

The bodies of the 353 inmates were transported early Thursday morning to a morgue in Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital. Another two prisoners who had been burned died at a Tegucigalpa hospital, Castro said.

Authorities provided transportation and housing for the families who traveled to the capital to await the identification of the bodies. Danelia Ferrera Turcios, director of the nation’s prosecutorial arm, has said it will be a long and slow process because so many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.

The U.S. outpost in Honduras also provided Comayagua officials with 400 body bags, two refrigerator trucks with a generator to function as mobile morgues, 35 cots, 10 units of blood plus 400 surgical masks and 2,000 pairs of latex gloves , U.S. Air Force Capt. Candice Allen said from Joint Task Force Bravo in Soto Cano.

Outside the Comayagua prison grounds, several hundred relatives of survivors remained late Thursday, awaiting a chance to walk through the front gates and deliver food and clothing to their loved ones via a guard. Among them was Digna Rosa Castro Blanco, who said her son, Octavio, survived. But the news wasn’t all good.

“Nothing happened to my son, thank God, but his father died in the fire,” she said.

Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.