Video: Honduras prison fire was started by accident, report finds
Published 23/02/2012 | 11:39
AN INFERNO at an overcrowded Honduran prison killed that 359 inmates last week was accidental and may have been caused by a cigarette, a preliminary report has found.
"The preliminary cause we have is an accident; the ideas of some kind of criminal intent, as well as a short circuit, have been ruled out," said Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla.
The Valentine's Day incident at the Comayagua jail was one of the world's deadliest prison blazes, and highlighted the problem of overcrowding in the region's jails.
Ms Bonilla said the prevailing theory was that "people were smoking on a flammable mattresses which caught fire and then flames raced through the crowded facility."
Authorities have not yet pinpointed who was smoking or if that person fell asleep while smoking.
In a statement released by the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, a team of US experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) also said it believed the fire was accidental.
"The cause of the fire is believed to have been an open flame (the source of which could include, but is not limited to, a cigarette, a lighter, matches, etc), although the actual ignition source was not recovered," the team said.
The team said the "tragic event has focused attention on inadequate safety practices within the Honduran prison system" such as overcrowding and the presence of flammable materials.
"The United States urges swift action in devising and enacting necessary reforms to ensure the safety, health, and human rights of Honduran prisoners in order to prevent similar tragedies in the future," it said.
Initial reports suggested the fire had been started an inmate trying to kill himself by setting his mattress ablaze in a crowded cell.
Relatives of the victims said some of the bodies they saw had bullet wounds, and they also claimed there were reports police may have been paid to pour gasoline around to help stage an escape.
Authorities however denied that any of the corpses had bullet wounds.
On Monday, scores of relatives of the inmates, frustrated by the slow pace of the investigation, broke through police barriers and opened body bags in a desperate search for their kin's remains.
President Porfirio Lobo on Tuesday said families would receive "fair" compensation for the loss of their loved ones, even as he acknowledged: "Nobody can bring anybody back to life."