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Murderer pardoned for saving hundreds in deadly Honduras prison fire

Estbean Felix / AP

The bodies of inmates who were killed in a the deadliest prison fire in the last century were transported within the morgue in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – No one knows for sure what started the prison fire at the Comayagua prison 50 miles north of here. But everyone agrees that the hero is a convicted murderer, an inmate named Marco Antonio Bonilla.

Antonio Bonilla, who had just months left on his sentence, roamed more freely than the others and was the prison nurse. He is credited with saving hundreds of inmates on the day of the deadliest prison fire in the last century. The prison's six guards, spooked by the flames, either ran away or refused to unlock the cells -- witness accounts differ -- but Antonio Bonilla was unrelenting, even using a heavy bench to smash open a lock, according to witnesses.

The Valentine’s Day fire started late in the day and raced through five barracks at the Comayagua prison farm, burning and suffocating screaming men trapped behind locked doors.

The reasons given for how the fire started are many: An angry inmate had threatened to torch the prison; inmates had been fighting over a mattress; an inmate had fallen asleep while smoking.   

Prisoners later said that the guard responsible for the keys threw them on the ground, while others said that Antonio Bonilla demanded them and started opening doors when the guard turned them over.

Inmate Jose Enrique Guevara said Antonio Bonilla used a bench to break open the lock on his cell block, No. 6, where the fire started. Enrique Guevara survived with burns.

There were 852 prisoners in the prison the night of the fire; on Tuesday, the total death toll had reached 360. Enrique Guevara's cell block was hit hard. Of the 105 prisoners crammed into rows of bunks four levels high, four survived.

Estbean Felix / AP

A forensic worker hangs a list of the names of inmates whose remains would be returned to their relatives at the morgue in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The prison fire killed 360 men.

In his weekly meeting with ministers broadcast on Channel 8, President Porfirio Lobo said he would give Antonio Bonilla a presidential pardon for his murder conviction.

"He put himself at incredible risk trying to save lives during the tragedy," Lobo said.

The United States Embassy in Honduras issued a statement saying investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms believed the fire was an accident. They found that crowding, poor safety practices and the presence of flammable materials in and around the tightly packed bunk beds caused the rapid spread of the flames.

Inmates had clothes, curtains and small electrical devices hung from their bunks. Some also had materials to light makeshift kitchen stoves, according to some of the survivors.

Honduras has experienced deadly fires in its overcrowded prisons in the past, Reuters reported.

In 2003, 68 people died inside a prison in northern Honduras when a fire broke out during a riot and investigators later found guards had killed inmates with machetes and guns on the inside. A year later, more than 100 inmates died in another prison fire in the city of San Pedro Sula.

This article includes reporting by Reuters and The Associated Press.

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