Mon, Feb 20, 2012 - Page 7 News List

Funerals begin for hundreds of jail fire victims in Honduras

AFP, TEGUCIGALPA

Hondurans are burying victims of one of the world’s worst jail fires as they search for answers about what caused the disaster.

On Saturday, the death toll rose to 358 after two severely burned inmates died in a hospital.

Several funerals took place in various towns around the country on Friday after authorities released the bodies of the first 24 victims of a horrific inferno that has rattled the Central American nation.

“This was a barbaric crime,” said Trinidad Varela, who bid a final farewell to her 28-year-old son, Edwin Ortega, in the town of Talanga, northwest of the capital. “We cannot leave it just like that.”

Four days after the blaze swept through the overcrowded Comayagua jail — which had held double its capacity with 852 inmates — the cause of the fire was still unclear.

A US team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived late on Thursday to investigate and Chilean experts also searched the jail.

About 60 percent of the prisoners in Comayagua had not yet been sentenced.

In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, exhausted families waited for their relatives’ bodies, kept at a distance because of a strong odor from the morgue.

Forensic experts from seven other Latin American countries are joining the Honduran team identifying the bodies.

Under tents set up outside the morgue, the team drew blood samples from relatives of the victims for DNA testing.

“There are bodies that can only be identified with DNA testing,” coroner Antonieta Zuniga said after explaining that many bodies were charred beyond recognition.

Lindolfo Hernandez, brother of one of the victims, said: “They told me that it would be difficult to give me my brother’s body because it is in a bad state, but I’ll stay here until they’ve done it.”

His brother, jailed for 10 years for rape, was due to be released in two months.

Delmi Matute could not understand the fate of her husband’s remains.

“We have been waiting here four days, but they have not given him to me. My husband died of smoke inhalation, he should be easy to identify, and they still have not given him to me,” she sobbed as she sat with stunned loved ones.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo suspended top officials from the country’s prison system and called for foreign assistance in the investigations amid accusations that authorities had been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster.

He pledged compensation for the victims’ families.

Human rights groups and witnesses questioned the role of the guards and the authorities, suggesting negligence or even premeditation.

The Committee for the Defense of Human Rights said in a statement that firefighters arrived too late, the prison director was absent and guards failed to open cell doors to save lives.

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