COMAYAGUA, Honduras Survivors of a Honduran prison fire that killed more than 350 inmates accused guards of leaving inmates to die inside their cells and shooting at others who tried to escape the flames.
"It was total chaos. People were running for their lives, shots were being fired. People were being burned alive," said prison chaplain Reynaldo Moncada, who arrived at the scene shortly after the conflagration broke out.
Most of the prison inmates had not even been convicted of a crime before the huge blaze tore through Comayagua National Penitentiary on Tuesday night.
Rosendo Sanchez, a convicted murderer serving a 10-year sentence, awoke as the blaze started. He escaped his cell block and said he watched guards firing at other inmates trying to escape from one of the worst prison fires in history.
"It was hell here, seeing your friends, people you have known well, burn alive," said Sanchez.
Sanchez complained the fire brigade did not come to the jailhouse for more than half an hour, while other survivors said guards ignored the cries for help.
On Thursday evening, an extemporaneous video made by a prison neighbor and that was widely shown to others confirmed that police were firing inside the facility.
Prison guards denied they had stopped inmates from escaping.
Honduras' director of police intelligence, Elder Madrid, said the fire broke out in block six during a fight over a mattress between two inmates, one of whom set it on fire. All but four of more than 100 prisoners in the block died, he said.
But some victims' relatives said the government had been grossly negligent or had even planned the blaze. An anonymous caller called broadcaster HCH, charging that guards set the fire after a foiled escape bid by inmates.
Honduras is the most murderous country in the world, ravaged by violent street gangs, rampant police corruption, dysfunctional courts and brutal drug cartels.
Such is the gangs' notoriety that Hondurans can be locked up simply for sporting tattoos associated with a gang.
Some of the 852 prisoners at the overcrowded jail managed to force their way to safety through the tin roofs of the complex, a dark, maze-like structure with narrow open-air hallways lined with white and blue brick walls.
But 359 of the prisoners could not escape the inferno, according to the attorney general's office.
One guard, Santorean Orellana, told Reuters it took time to open the cells because the duty officer had left the keys in a locked safe that guards needed special permission to open.
More than half the inmates had not been convicted and were awaiting trial, a rate even worse than the national average of 45 percent, according to Supreme Court figures.
Lorena Machado came to see her husband, who survived the blaze and has yet to be given a trial hearing after six months inside.
"They're all corrupt, let us in," the 37-year-old woman screamed toward the prison, where about half the inmates remain. "They never want to tell us anything because they don't want us to know the truth. They kill you for saying the truth here."
Claudio Saenz, a social worker who visits the jail, said some inmates had been waiting up to three years for a hearing.
A local fire chief condemned the prison authorities, saying they had stopped his crews from entering the burning prison for half an hour.
"These people in the prisons have their protocols, and while these are going on, they don't let anybody in," Jaime Omar Silva told El Tiempo newspaper.
For many hours after the blaze, groups of police and soldiers dragged out the charred remains of inmates in black body bags and hurled them on to a pile outside.
"The corpses are charred and some of them are stuck on top of each other," said Johnny Ordenez, a soldier lugging the dead. "You have to peel them apart like an orange."
Inside the gutted complex, the smell of charred flesh hung heavily in the air on Wednesday night. One scorched body lay face down on the floor, both legs pulled up close to the fetal position, with its arm outstretched into the corner of the cell.
IMPOSSIBLE TO IDENTIFY
On Thursday, a few remaining bereaved family members lingered around the prison trying to get information.
Loaded on trailers, the dead were sent to a morgue in the capital, Tegucigalpa, where about 200 relatives set up tents to prepare for a long wait.
"In some cases, it will be impossible to identify them because they are completely burned," said Danelia Ferrera, an official at the attorney general's office.
Forensic experts asked family members to identify any distinguishing characteristics of their next of kin, like tattoos or birthmarks, in the hopes of speeding up the process.
Delmira Argueta, 51, waited outside the morgue for word of her missing son Luis, who was serving time for homicide.
"I'm not going to leave here until they give me my son, even if he's in pieces and all wrapped up," she said.
Officials say they have pulled 355 bodies from the jail where the 852 prisoners were packed way over capacity. Honduran authorities said the prison was built for 400, but prison chaplain Moncada said it was meant for just 250.
Honduras' jails operate at 48 percent overcapacity, according to the Supreme Court data.
At more than 80 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, Honduras' murder rate is 16 times that of the United States, according to a U.N. study.
The death toll in Comayagua has thrown the country's problems into sharp relief, said Dana Frank, an expert on Honduras at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "We're talking about a total breakdown of the state," he said.