Trapped inmates screamed from their cells as a fire swept through a Honduran prison, killing at least 300 inmates in one of the world's deadliest fires in decades, authorities said on Wednesday. (Read: 10 deadliest prison fires)
Some 475 people escaped from the prison in the town of Comayagua and 356 are missing and presumed dead, said Hector Ivan Mejia, a spokesman for the Honduras Security Ministry. He said 21 people had been injured.
Dozens were trapped behind bars as prison authorities tried to find the keys, officials said.
Honduras' overcrowded and dilapidated prisons have been hit by a string of deadly riots and fires in recent years. A 2004 prison fire killed more than 100 incarcerated gang members in a state prison north of the capital. A fire a year earlier at a nearby facility killed 70 gang members.
Honduran authorities have repeatedly pledged to improve conditions but human rights groups say little has been done.
The country of 7.6 million people is a major transit route for drugs headed from South America to the United States and has one of the world's highest rates of violent crime.
The U.S. State Department has criticized Honduras for "harsh prison conditions" and violence against detainees.
Outraged relatives of dead inmates tried to storm the gates of the prison on Wednesday morning to recover the remains of their loves ones, witnesses told The Associated Press. The crowds were driven back by police officers firing tear gas.
Channel 5 television showed dozens of inmates' relatives hurling rocks at officers.
"We want to see the body," said Juan Martinez, whose son was reported dead. "We'll be here until we get to do that."
Comayagua fire department spokesman Josue Garcia said he saw "horrific" scenes while trying to put out the fire, saying inmates rioted in attempts to escape. He said "some 100 prisoners were burned to death or suffocated in their cells."
"We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them," Garcia said.
Rescuers carried shirtless, semi-conscious prisoners from the facility by their arms and legs. One hauled a victim away from the fire by piggyback.
Officials are investigating whether the fire was triggered by rioting prisoners or by an electrical short-circuit, said Danilo Orellana, head of the national prison system.
A prisoner identified as Silverio Aguilar told HRN Radio that someone started screaming, "Fire! fire!" and the prisoners called for help.
"For a while, nobody listened. But after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a guard appeared with keys and let us out," he said.
He said there had been 60 prisoners packed into his cell.
Hundreds of relatives rushed to Santa Teresa Hospital in Comayagua state to learn the fate of their loved ones, said Leonel Silva, fire chief in Comayagua, a town 90 miles (140 kilometers) north of the Central American country's capital, Tegucigalpa.
Lucy Marder, chief of forensic medicine for the prosecutor's office, said she believed the death toll would rise and it would take at least three months to identify victims, some burned beyond recognition, because DNA tests will be required.
Honduras has 24 prisons, 23 for men or mixed populations, and one exclusively for women. In December the total prison population was 11,846 of which 411 were women.