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Honduran Prison Fire Kills at Least 272; Cause Unclear

February 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Fire engulfed a 1940s-era prison in Honduras overnight. By late today, 272 inmates were confirmed dead, but officials said the number was expected to go much higher. More than 450 others escaped with their lives.

Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: This shaky cell phone video captured the fearful scenes, flames raging into the night sky. Honduran television showed the fast-moving blaze burning out of control at the prison.

Workers at a nearby hotel said it took 20 to 30 minutes for the first fire crews to arrive. Even then, firefighters said at least 100 inmates died in their cells, screaming for help. Some inmates were set free. Rescuers carried injured prisoners outside. And many of those died later of burns and smoke inhalation.

In short order, grieving relatives gathered outside the prison in Comayagua, a city in central Honduras, about 45 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa. As dawn came, people tried to storm the gates of the prison to recover remains of their loved ones. Some threw rocks before being pushed back by security officers.

The president of the Central American nation, Porfirio Lobo, went on television with condolences and a promise of aid.

PORFIRIO LOBO, Honduran president (through translator): This is a very painful day for Honduras. We are very sorry about what happened. And I want to express my solidarity with the relatives of those who lost their life in the prison in Comayagua. We are going to give all the medical assistance to the injured.

MARGARET WARNER: The cause of the fire remained in question. Some survivors said an inmate had screamed, “We will all die here,” and then set his mattress ablaze in his cell.

As rescue workers removed the bodies, President Lobo suspended the officials in charge of the prison and vowed to get answers.

PORFIRIO LOBO (through translator): We will carry out a full investigation to find out what caused this sad and unacceptable tragedy and to find those responsible. It will be an independent investigation monitored by international observers.

MARGARET WARNER: Honduran prisons have long been notorious for overcrowding and violence.

The one in Comayagua reportedly was built for 400 people, but housed more than 800. There have been other deadly prison fires. In 2004, a blaze at state prison near Tegucigalpa killed more than 100 inmates.