updated 5/17/2004 3:45:01 PM ET 2004-05-17T19:45:01

A fire sparked by a short-circuit killed at least 103 inmates and injured more than two dozen in a prison in northern Honduras early Monday. It was the second major jail fire in the country in a little more than a year.

The short-circuit apparently occurred when a refrigerator motor overheated in a cell block housing 186 gang members, Police Commissioner Wilmer Torres said. Some prisoners were burned to death while others died from smoke inhalation. There were no reports of any escapes, Torres said.

Authorities said 103 prisoners died, and 25 were taken to area hospitals with injuries after the fire broke out about 1:30 a.m. Authorities originally estimated the death toll at 90. They later raised it to 101 after more bodies were found, then to 103 when two prisoners died at the hospital.

Many of the gang members were arrested during the country’s recent crackdown on gang violence, and were asleep at the time of the fire. “The bodies have been counted,” Vice Security Minister Armando Calidonio said, adding: “The situation is serious.”

President Ricardo Maduro cut short a European tour on Monday, telling an Associated Press reporter in Rome that he would return home to deal with “a tragedy of major proportions.”

Maduro met early Monday with Pope John Paul II. He had been scheduled to hold talks with Italian officials, then fly to Spain for talks with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and attend the marriage of the Spanish Crown Prince Felipe on Sunday.

The families gather
As word of the fire spread, hundreds of the inmates’ family members began gathering outside the prison, located in the city of San Pedro Sula, 110 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Authorities closed off all streets near the prison as police, rescue crews and army troops worked to control the situation.

“We’re doing everything possible to work fast, but it is chaos,” Torres said.

“Everything happened fast while we were sleeping,” prisoner Jose Mauricio Lopez told a radio station from his hospital bed. “We woke up with our clothes and our beds in flames.”

The prisoners had two refrigerators for soft drinks located in the cell block, Torres said. “We believe that one of them exploded and caused the flames, but the fire department is still investigating,” he said.

The fire already had consumed a large part of the jail when firefighters entered. They were able to bring it under control quickly despite resistance from some of the gang members, prison spokesman Commissioner Jose Bustillo said.

One of the surviving prisoners, Pablo Cardona, claimed that guards “fired at us repeatedly from outside the cell block to stop us from leaving, despite our cries for help.” But Bustillo said guards fired guns in the air “to prevent a massive prisoner escape.”

Overcrowding an issue
Honduras’ prisons consist of 27 old buildings housing 13,000 prisoners, twice their capacity. The prison in San Pedro has room for 800 prisoners, but held 1,960 at the time of the fire, Torres said. Authorities earlier said the prison’s population was 2,200. Torres later noted that some of the inmates had been transferred to other facilities in recent days.

“This is a horrible tragedy,” said Monsignor Romulo Emiliani, as he arrived at the jail. “The situation is worse because there are too many people in a single cell. ... This shouldn’t happen.”

Maduro told the AP that his administration was trying to improve the grave overcrowding problem in the country’s prisons.

“We’ve already taken steps in this direction. We already knew we had a problem with overpopulation,” he said.

Gangs common in Honduras
All of the prisoners in the affected cell block belonged to the Mara Salvatrucha, one of the most violent of Central America’s gangs.

There are more than 100,000 gang members belonging to 500 different gangs in Honduras. Most of the members are between 8 and 35 years old.

Monday’s was the second major jail fire in a little more than a year. Some prisoners were locked in their cells, doused with gasoline, and set on fire, during an uprising at El Porvenir prison on April 5, 2003, that killed nearly 70 people, including guards and visitors.

The uprising began with clashes between prisoners, many also gang members. The violence quickly escalated, and a government report blamed guards for many of the deaths.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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