Sun, Aug 19, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Hundreds of inmates escaped in Peru quake

`CHAOS' First prisoners thought they would drown as water filled their cells up to their necks, but then Chincha Prison's walls collapsed and 683 inmates fled within minutes

AFP , TAMBO DE MORA, PERU

A prison guard stands in front of the remains of Chincha Prison in Tambo de Mora, Peru, on Friday. The inmates who chose not to flee the prison when an earthquake brought down its walls are being moved to other facilities.

PHOTO: AP

As Peru's powerful earthquake brought down their prison's walls and lights, 66 guards could only watch helplessly while nearly 700 inmates escaped into the night.

The Chincha Prison, located in the town of Tambo de Mora, held many hardened criminals, including rapists, kidnappers and drug dealers, when its doors and walls were forced open by the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated the south coast on Wednesday.

As a special police force scoured the region for the fugitives, Captain Alberto Lindemberg Salazar defended the guards' actions during that harrowing night when the prison was nearly emptied in just 15 minutes.

"It was chaos," he said.

The inmates feared for their lives as water from the nearby Pacific Ocean -- just 180m from the prison -- shot up from cracks in the floors of their cells and quickly began flooding them.

"A tsunami is coming!" prisoners shouted as the water nearly reached their necks, Lindemberg said. "Naturally, the prisoners feared for their lives."

Soon after, cell walls collapsed, fencing surrounding the prison split in several sections and the 3.5m outer, brick walls fell, giving prisoners an easy escape route.

"We could not take radical measures to stop them from escaping because there was no light," he said.

"The only thing we could do was fire warning shots in the air," Lindemberg said, adding that the guards' decision that evening was made in the name of "human rights."

As the prisoners fled, they blended in with workers from a nearby fish processing plant who were also fleeing the water and tremors, the captain said.

"It was something out of our control that lasted 10 to 15 min-utes," he said.

A special police force was deployed to hunt down the fugitives, dead or alive. Nearly 60 of the 683 fugitives have been captured, authorities said, while some have also reportedly given themselves up to avoid harsher sentences.

But a few inmates did not flee.

There were scores of inmates in the prison on Friday, but they will all be transferred in the next few days, Lindemberg said.

Ana Miriam Martin's husband, preferred to serve out the seven remaining months of his term rather than "live in hiding."

The 32-year-old woman recalled the fear that overcame her the day of the earthquake, thinking her husband would become one of the 500 people killed by the disaster.

"I was thinking, `I hope he escapes,'" she said.

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