updated 12/9/2005 3:14:48 PM ET 2005-12-09T20:14:48

Jail warden Muhammed Shabbir vowed to never allow a prisoner to escape on his watch. But on Oct. 8, when the monster quake struck South Asia, his prison walls came down and he looked on helplessly as the inmates ran free.

Some kicked him as they went.

"They escaped as birds flee when you open their cage," said Shabbir, who was knocked down by a falling stone as he was guarding the cell housing inmates on death row when the 7.6-magnitude quake destroyed the entire structure of Muzaffarabad's central prison.

Some 117 prisoners were locked up or were having their morning walk when the earth began shaking. Shabbir said 22 inmates were in the heavily guarded death row cell at the time. Eleven were buried in the rubble and 11 others were injured and bleeding but able to flee.

Another jail official, Mohammed Bashir, said they fired warning shots, but were not able to prevent the inmates from fleeing.

Jail Superintendent Raja Aftab said about 100 prisoners escaped from the jail after the quake and there was no immediate plan to recapture them.

"I am the superintendent of a jail which has no cell left intact," he said. "Even if we recapture them, where we would lock them up?"

He said, however, that four prisoners, including the prison's only woman inmate, stayed and ignored the falling walls and collapsed cells. After three days, they were shifted to another jail in the town of Mirpur.

'Good conduct' request
Aftab said they had requested the government grant leniency to the four for their "good conduct."

One of the prisoners who did not flee was Hidayat Ullah, who said a week after the quake that he deserved no help.

"We are not good people that someone should come to rescue us," he said.

With no prisoners to guard, jail staff have been asked by Aftab to remove rubble and help clean up.

The government has promised three big containers to use as portable housing _ two for the prisoners and one for the staff.

"I hope we will get these containers soon," Aftab said, noting suspects are currently being held in police stations, often chained to beds in rooms supervised by policemen.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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