SANTIAGO, Chile — A fire set off by rioting inmates in a severely overcrowded prison killed at least 83 prisoners Wednesday and seriously injured at least 14 others, firefighters said. Chileans nationwide could hear the screams of dying inmates in the background as a prisoner used an illegal cell phone to call state television for help.
National prison police director Luis Masferrer said the blaze broke out at about 5:30 a.m. (7:30 a.m. EST; 1230 GMT) at the San Miguel prison south of the capital, and it was brought under control three hours later.
Chile’s health minister, Jaime Manalich, called it an “enormous calamity” after arriving at the prison, “probably the worst in the history of our penitentiary system. There’s a significant number of dead.”
Hundreds of anxious and angry relatives of inmates gathered in a chaotic scene outside the prison gates.
Some told state television that prison police initially closed the gates to firefighters, impeding efforts by 10 responding units to control the blaze.
Police operations director Jaime Concha insisted police acted quickly despite coping with a population of 1,900 inmates at the prison built for 700.
Chile’s firefighters said in an official statement that they were alerted to the fire by a call from a cell phone inside the prison. The release didn’t say whether it was a prisoner or guard who called.
Authorities have not said why so many inmates died or how long it took firefighters to enter the part of the prison where the blaze began, on the third floor of Tower 5.
Firefighters had to work with police to avoid problems with prisoners all around them. While more than 200 inmates were moved to other areas of the prison, there were 147 others in the immediate area of the blaze, and many died of asphyxiation, the firefighters’ statement said.
Manalich said that in addition to the dead, 14 others were so badly burned that their fate is uncertain. Two firefighters and three guards were less seriously hurt, according to Manalich and firefighters.
Injured prisoners were taken to various hospitals in the region, firefighters said.