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Prison fire kills 81 in Chile

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Massive prison fire kills dozens
  • NEW: Overcrowded conditions at prison were "inhuman," president says
  • NEW: San Miguel prison was housing nearly double its capacity
  • NEW: Fourteen prisoners are critically injured; a firefighter and three policemen are also hurt
  • NEW: Senator says security at the prison was lacking
  • Chile

Santiago, Chile (CNN) -- Chile's president said Wednesday that conditions were "inhumane" at a prison south of Santiago where a fire killed 81 prisoners.

President Sebastian Pinero visited a hospital where five injured inmates were hospitalized and afterward told reporters that the San Miguel prison was vastly overcrowded.

"The conditions that existed at the prison were inhumane," Pinera said. "Chile does not deserve a prison system as we have. This is a problem that has dragged on for a long time."

The prison housed 1,961 inmates at the time of the fire Wednesday, said Felipe Bulnes, the justice minister. The prison was built to hold only 1,000 inmates, CNN Chile reported.

Health minister Jaime Manalich said 14 inmates were in critical condition after the fire. A firefighter and three policemen were also injured, CNN Chile reported. Another 200 inmates were evacuated.

"This is a terrible tragedy," Manalich said, calling it the worst incident to strike the country's penal system.

Chilean Senator Guido Girardi said that the tragedy could not be blamed entirely on overcrowding, noting that only five guards and a single paramedic were on duty at the time of the blaze.

"I think there is a state responsibility, of Chilean society, of all governments," Girardi, a member of the Party for Democracy, told CNN Chile, " ... and I think it is not possible that all the responsibility should be attributed to overcrowded conditions."

The fire started on the fourth floor of San Miguel prison's Tower 5 after a riot among inmates, metropolitan regional commissioner Fernando Echeverria said.

The call came in at shortly before 6 a.m. -- nearly an hour after the fire started, the fire department said. The cause of the blaze is under investigation, the department said.

Meanwhile, a large crowd of inmates' relatives gathered outside the prison, worried about the fate of their loved ones.

"Why won't they give us information?" one woman asked.

Echeverria said authorities will inform the relatives of deceased prisoners before making the names public.

"Our main concern is to attend to those people who were injured and to handle the information regarding those who died diligently," Bulnes said.

Earlier reports indicated 83 people died in the fire, but Manalich said the number was 81.