A fire started during an inmate brawl swept through an overcrowded prison on Wednesday, killing at least 81 people and seriously injuring 14. Chileans heard the screams of inmates after a prisoner using a contraband cellphone called state TV for help.
The early morning blaze at San Miguel prison, which preliminary reports indicated may have been intentionally set, was the worst disaster in the history of Chile’s penitentiary system, Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.
The fire began during fighting between inmates and reached its maximum intensity in just three minutes, Chilean Interior Minister Rodribo Hinzpeter said.
It was brought under control in three hours.
Police operations director Jaime Concha insisted police acted quickly despite coping with 1,900 inmates at the prison built for 700.
“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.
Chilean TV broadcast spine-chilling audio and video from the prison fire, some of it shot by prisoners using banned cellphones and sent to stations.
The state channel aired a recording of an inmate calling from inside the prison and pleading for help. Screams could be heard in the background. Other broadcasts showed the smoked-filled prison tower and inmates shouting over and over: “The doors!” and “We’re burning!”
Private Mega TV broadcast a recording made by a prisoner of inmates in the burning tower screaming “Help! Help! Open the doors!”
Investigator Alejandro Pena said preliminary reports indicated the fire was set intentionally, but he didn’t say by whom. An inmate, however, told state TV the fire began when a small stove fell during a fight.
Santiago region Governor Fernando Echeverria said the official death toll was 81. By Wednesday evening, officials had identified only 31 of the victims, because many of the bodies were unrecognizable.
Officials said most would have to be identified by DNA.
Firefighters said they were alerted to the fire by a call from a cellphone inside the prison, a collection of cement towers that rises above a middle class neighborhood in Chile’s capital.
A fire department communique said the first firefighters arrived nine minutes after the initial alarm at 5:48am, and found a violent fire spread over a large part of the fourth floor of Tower 5. They cut through several locks, allowing them to save 60 inmates, it said.
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.