TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A fire started by an inmate tore through an overcrowded prison in Honduras, burning and suffocating screaming men in their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for keys. At least 358 people were killed in the world's deadliest prison fire in eight decades.
The local governor, who was once a prison employee, told reporters Wednesday that an inmate called her moments before the blaze broke out and screamed: "I will set this place on fire and we are all going to die!"
Comayagua Gov. Paola Castro said she called the Red Cross and fire brigade immediately. But firefighters said they were kept outside for half an hour by guards who fired their guns in the air, thinking they had a riot or a breakout on their hands.
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said on national television Wednesday that he had suspended the country's top prison officials and would request international assistance in carrying out a thorough investigation.
"This is a day of profound sadness," Lobo said.
Officials have long had little control over conditions inside many Honduran prisons, where inmates have largely unfettered access to cell phones and other contraband.
Survivors told investigators the unidentified inmate yelled "We will all die here!" as he set fire to his bedding late Tuesday night in the prison in the central town of Comayagua, north of the capital of Tegucigalpa.
The lockup housed people convicted of serious crimes such as homicide and armed robbery.
The blaze spread within minutes, killing about 100 inmates in their cells as firefighters struggled to find officials who had keys, Comayagua fire department spokesman Josue Garcia said.
"We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them," Garcia said.
Other prisoners were set free by guards but died from the flames or smoke as they tried to flee into the fields surrounding the facility, where prisoners grew corn and beans on a state-run farm.
Among the dead were six prisoners who drowned trying to seek refuge in a water tank.
Comayagua, which houses members of the nation's largest gangs, was built in the 1940s for 400 inmates, but its population had more than doubled to 852, with only 100 guards to maintain order.
Survivor Ever Lopez, 24, who was serving time for homicide, said he was sleeping when the fire broke out about 11 p.m.
"I saw the smoke from cell block 6 and it spread throughout the prison," he said. "The other prisoners and I broke through the roof with our bare hands and fled. Thank God I'm alive."
National prison system director Danilo Orellana, who has been suspended, defended the guards' decision to keep firefighters out as flames lit up the sky.
"The guards first thought they had a prison break, so they followed the law saying no one could enter to prevent unnecessary deaths," he 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.
Honduras has one of the world's highest rates of violent crime, and its overcrowded and dilapidated prisons have been hit by a string of deadly riots and fires in recent years.
Officials have repeatedly pledged to improve conditions, only to say they don't have sufficient funds.
Tuesday's blaze was the world's deadliest prison fire since 1930, when 322 prisoners were killed in Ohio.
The U.S. State Department has criticized Honduras for "harsh prison conditions" and violence against detainees.
Honduran authorities have repeatedly pledged to improve conditions, but human rights groups say little has been done in the country of 7.6 million people, a major transit route for drugs headed from South America to the United States.
The United States sent help from a contingent at Soto Cano Air Base, about 15 minutes from the prison.
U.S. military Staff Sgt. Bryan Franks said that smoke was no longer visible above the city and that his team included four vehicles made up of a 10-member medical team, security guards and firefighters.
Hundreds of relatives rushed to Santa Teresa Hospital in Comayagua state to learn the fate of their loved ones, fire Chief Leonel Silva said.
Lucy Marder, chief of forensic medicine for the prosecutor's office, said she believed that the death toll would rise and that it would take at least three months to identify victims, some burned beyond recognition, because DNA tests will be required.