SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — A fire that began during a riot in a severely overcrowded prison killed at least 81 inmates Wednesday and seriously injured 14 others, officials said. Chileans nationwide could hear the screams of inmates after a prisoner using an illegal cell phone called state television for help.
"The conditions that existed inside this prison are absolutely inhumane," said Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who visited an emergency center where inmates were being treated for severe burns and smoke inhalation.
National prison police director Luis Masferrer said the blaze broke out about 5:30 a.m. (7:30 a.m. EST; 1230 GMT) at the San Miguel prison south of the capital, and it was brought under control three hours later.
Preliminary reports indicated the fire was set intentionally, said investigator Alejandro Pena. Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said it started during fighting between inmates and reached its maximum intensity in just three minutes.
Prison officials said the first call to firefighters came about 20 minutes after the fight began.
Pinera told reporters the number of dead had risen to 83, but Santiago region Gov. Fernando Echeverria said later that the official number of dead was still 81.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich called it an "enormous calamity ... probably the worst in the history of our penitentiary system."
Hundreds of anxious and angry relatives of inmates gathered in a chaotic scene outside the prison gates. Some waited six hours before officials read out the names of survivors — which people mistook for those of the dead. Some spat or hurled rocks at Masferrer.
Police operations director Jaime Concha insisted police acted quickly despite coping with 1,900 inmates at the prison built for 700.
In October, Judge Ana Maria Arratia Valdebenito warned that Tower 5, where the fire began, held 484 prisoners — more than 100 per floor
Pedro Hernandez, who directs Chile's prison guards union, said there were only five guards to watch over the prisoners. Pinera, however, said there were six guards in the prison towers where the inmates are held, and 26 others stationed at the perimeter.
Chile's firefighters said in an official statement that they were alerted to the fire by a call from a cell phone inside the prison, a collection of cement towers that rises above a middle class neighborhood.
Many inmates died on the third floor of Tower 5. Firefighters had to work with police to avoid more problems with prisoners all around them.
Some relatives of inmates told state TV that prison police initially closed the gates to firefighters, impeding efforts by 10 units to control the blaze.
"They wouldn't let the firefighters come in. The riot police came in first and began to beat us, and later the firefighters came in," an unidentified prisoner said in a call that was played on state TV. He didn't give his name, saying he feared retribution.
He said the guards "laughed and took photos with the cell phones of the inmates who were vomiting (from smoke) ... and didn't do anything." Officials evacuated prisoners from lower floors instead of those inmates who were dying, the prisoner said.
But Fire Department Cmdr. Jose Sanchez said it took 10 minutes for firefighters to enter the prison, blaming any delay on "the intense heat" they encountered, not on the guards.
While more than 200 inmates were moved to other areas of the prison, there were 147 others in the immediate area of the blaze, and many died of asphyxiation, the firefighters' statement said.
It was supposed to be visitors' day at the prison, so many family members were already lining up outside when the fire broke out. Their anxiety spilled over when they learned that prisoners were killed. Some broke down in tears and screams, while others threw rocks at Masferrer, the prison police director, as he read the survivors' names over a megaphone.
Manalich said 14 prisoners were badly burned, with uncertain fates. Two firefighters and three guards were less seriously hurt, authorities said.