By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD - March 9, 2005
IGÜEY, Dominican Republic, March 8 - Zacaria Martínez is not sure how he survived the fire that swept through his prison cell, packed almost to the roof with inmates, killing nearly everyone inside. The only explanation he has is that it was "at the hands of God."
Inside the overcrowded prison here early Monday, a battle broke out in a cell known as Vietnam, the authorities said. Shots were fired and punches flew. Mattresses, machetes and other objects sailed through the air before a burst of flame came, then torrents of black, choking smoke.
The cell in the overcrowded prison in Higüey where a fire took the lives of 136 inmates, 71 of whom have yet to be identified. The government has appointed a commission to investigate what happened.
"I cannot explain or describe the cries I heard of people burning to death," Mr. Martínez, one of 19 from the cell who survived, said Tuesday as he stood among scores of other prisoners packed into another cell. It was just as crowded as the one where the inferno took the lives of 136 prisoners.
Nearby, with the smell of smoke still heavy in the air, several workers wearing masks shoveled debris from the charred cell into sacks.
At a hospital a mile away, relatives and friends of the victims wept over bloodstained blue coffins and the blackened remains of their loved ones. Some of the victims still lay on a dirt field under a white tent, their faces frozen in agony.
Sergio Sarita Valdez, the country's under secretary of health, said 71 bodies still had not been identified and he pleaded with the public to provide dental records and other information to help investigators.
He said bodies were lying in the sun because hospital workers had been pressed by family members wanting access so they could identify and claim the dead.
A Red Cross worker lifted the lid of a coffin. Santo Natera Acosta's sister, Elisia, burst into convulsing sobs at the sight of her brother's charred and barely recognizable body.
"We want justice I swear," she cried over and over, kneeling beside the coffin. She questioned the authorities' version of the cause of the blaze: was it started by prisoners setting fire to their own mattresses, as officials have said, or was it the tear gas fired to quell the riot?
The government has appointed a commission to investigate what happened here in Higüey, 90 miles east of Santo Domingo, the latest in a series of deadly fires and riots to strike Latin American jails.
Human rights workers here and abroad say prison overcrowding in the Dominican Republic is among the worst in the hemisphere.
The prison in Higüey was built in 1960 to house 80 inmates, but contained at least 426 on the morning of the fire, the authorities said.
The cell that burned held more than 150 inmates, although it was built for no more than 40.
The overcrowding was clear on Tuesday in the remaining two cells. In one, inmates were jammed against windows and doors, their belongings stuffed into every nook and cranny.
A prisoner seated on the floor pressed against a cell door amid a tangle of legs cried out that he could barely breathe. He said he had a lung illness that had not been treated.
Government officials said guards had reacted as quickly as they could to the conflagration.
The fire took hold so swiftly that even though there is a fire station just around the corner from the jail, little could be done.
"The fire burned everything very fast in a matter of seconds or minutes," said Pedro Rojas Morillo, the governor of La Altagracia Province here. "There was no hope."
A police sergeant who said he had opened the door to the cell said the difficulty getting to the inmates stemmed more from the smoke and flames than from what the authorities suspect was debris jammed into the lock. "Can you imagine how hard it was?" he said, describing his attempt to free the padlock as inmates inside begged for help.
Mr. Morillo, the governor, toured the prison on Tuesday but declined to give more details on what investigators had uncovered.
"This is what the investigation will uncover, what exactly happened," he said.
One focus of the inquiry is likely to be how the prisoners obtained one gun, and possibly two.