MEXICO CITY -- A fire that broke out in an overcrowded Honduran prison left "more than 300" inmates dead, a Cabinet minister said Wednesday, as investigators pulled one body after another from the charred facility.
The fire, which broke out at 10:50 p.m. Tuesday at the Comayagua National Penitentiary, took firefighters three hours to douse.
"It is a day of deep pain for Honduras," President Porfirio Lobo said in a brief televised address, acknowledging that a criminal hand may have been behind the disaster.
"We will conduct an investigation to determine what provoked this lamentable and unacceptable tragedy and find those responsible," Lobo said.
The death toll climbed throughout the day. At noon, Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla said he thought that "more than 300" were dead. National Prison Director Danilo Orellana later told Honduran media that the toll had gone past 350. At least one woman who was in the prison illegally was said to be among the fatalities.
Hundreds of other prisoners were burned in the blaze or injured when they broke through a roof and jumped to safety, hospital officials said.
Bonilla said the fire underscored "the dramatic situation in terms of security" that afflicts the Central American nation, which is on a major narcotics corridor and has been overrun by organized crime.
"We have lost control to a certain point of actions that we must forcefully take ... in benefit of Honduran society," Bonilla said outside the prison.
Anguished relatives banged on the gates and threw rocks at riot police and soldiers who were blocking access to the prison in Comayagua, a city about 55 miles north of the capital of Tegucigalpa. Police responded with tear gas. Gunfire also rang out.
Riot police also closed off all public access to the morgue in Tegucigalpa where bodies were taken, as relatives clamored for information about the identities of the victims.
Bonilla said investigators were combing through the charred scene to determine what had sparked the blaze, which was attributed either to a mattress that had been set afire or a short circuit in cell block 6.
Photos showed metal cell bars that had twisted and melted from the heat.
Security agents outside the one-story prison wore surgical masks as the stench of burned flesh lingered. White body bags piled up outside the yellow entrance to the prison.
"When the fire started, we shouted at (the guards) with keys but they wouldn't open for us. In fact, they fired at us," inmate Ruben Garcia told the El Heraldo newspaper.
As the raging fire consumed more of the prison, guards ushered survivors out of the jail. Many emerged shirtless, bearing burn marks on their tattooed torsos. Injured prisoners were taken to hospitals in Comayagua and Tegucigalpa.