TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - Trapped inmates screamed from their cells as a fire swept through a Honduran prison, killing at least 300 inmates in one of the world's deadliest fires in decades, authorities said Wednesday.
Some 475 people escaped from the prison in the town of Comayagua and 356 are missing and presumed dead, said Hector Ivan Mejia, a spokesman for the Honduras Security Ministry. He said 21 people had been injured.
Dozens were trapped behind bars as prison authorities tried to find the keys, officials said. Honduran authorities said the fire had been started by a prisoner who set his mattress ablaze in his cell.
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.
Channel 5 television showed dozens of inmates' relatives hurling rocks at officers.
The prison housed people convicted of serious crimes such as homicide and armed robbery, Danilo Orellana, director of the national prison system, told The Associated Press.
"We want to see the body," said Juan Martinez, whose son was reported dead. "We'll be here until we get to do that."
Survivors told prisoners that an inmate had lit fire to his bedding, Orellana said.
"Some of his cellmates said that he screamed: 'We will all die here!' And in five minutes everything burned," Orellana said. He did not identify the man or speculate about his motivation. Leonel Silva, fire chief in Comayagua, a town 90 miles (140 kilometers) north of the capital, confirmed Orellana's account to reporters on the scene.
Honduras' overcrowded and dilapidated prisons have been hit by a string of deadly riots and fires in recent years. A 2004 prison fire killed more than 100 incarcerated gang members in a state prison north of the capital. A fire a year earlier at a nearby facility killed 70 gang members. In 1994, a fire sparked by an overheated refrigerator motor in an overcrowded Honduras prison killed 103 people.
Honduran authorities have repeatedly pledged to improve conditions but human rights groups say little has been done.
The country of 7.6 million people is a major transit route for drugs headed from South America to the United States and has one of the world's highest rates of violent crime.
The U.S. State Department has criticized Honduras for "harsh prison conditions" and violence against detainees.
"This is a problem that's existed for a long time and the solutions haven't been applied, but now we have to do something even though we don't have the money," Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla told reporters.
Comayagua fire department spokesman Josue Garcia said he saw "horrific" scenes while trying to put out the fire, saying inmates rioted in attempts to escape. He said "some 100 prisoners were burned to death or suffocated in their cells."
"We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them," Garcia said.
Rescuers carried shirtless, semi-conscious prisoners from the facility by their arms and legs. One hauled a victim away from the fire by piggyback.
A prisoner identified as Silverio Aguilar told HRN Radio that someone started screaming, "Fire! fire!" and the prisoners called for help.
"For a while, nobody listened. But after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a guard appeared with keys and let us out," he said.
He said there had been 60 prisoners packed into his cell.
At 10:20 a.m., the first U.S. support was on its way to the prison from their base at Soto Cano Air Base, about 15 minutes away.
"We're driving there right now to provide assistance to emergency responders on the ground," said U.S. Military Staff Sgt. Bryan Franks. Franks said smoke was no longer visible above the city, and that his team included four vehicles made up of a 10-man medical team, a security forces element and firefighters.
Hundreds of relatives rushed to Santa Teresa Hospital in Comayagua state to learn the fate of their loved ones, Silva said.
Lucy Marder, chief of forensic medicine for the prosecutor's office, said she believed the death toll would rise and it would take at least three months to identify victims, some burned beyond recognition, because DNA tests will be required.
Honduras has 24 prisons, 23 for men or mixed populations, and one exclusively for women. In December the total prison population was 11,846 of which 411 were women.
In 2010, a fire in an El Salvador prison killed 16 inmates and injured another 22, while a Chile prison fire left 81 people dead.