SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- A fire at an overcrowded prison in northern Honduras yesterday consumed a cellblock housing gang members, killing 103, many as they slept, and injuring 25 others.
The fire began at 1:30 a.m. when an air conditioner in a cellblock occupied by 186 prisoners short-circuited, Police Commissioner Wilmer Torres said. Some prisoners burned to death, and others died from smoke inhalation.
''We woke up with our clothes and our beds in flames," prisoner Jose Mauricio Lopez told a radio station from his hospital bed.
A prisoner identified as Antonio Flores said he heard an explosion ''and then the cellblock caught immediately on fire."
Firefighters brought the blaze under control quickly, but it had already consumed a large part of the jail in San Pedro Sula, 110 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa, by the time they arrived. There were no reports of escapes, Torres said.
Officials said 103 prisoners died and 25 others were injured.
It was the second deadly prison fire in Honduras in a little over a year, and Vice President Vicente Williams promised to find funds to improve the overcrowded system.
''Honduras's jails are a time bomb," Williams said from the scene.
Many gang members started attacking the firefighters, prompting guards to fire into the air ''to prevent a massive prisoner escape," said prison spokesman Jose Bustillo.
But prisoner Pablo Cardona said the guards ''fired at us repeatedly from outside the cellblock to stop us from leaving, despite our cries for help."
Hundreds of concerned relatives rushed to the prison seeking information as officials lined up the victims' bodies in rows on the ground.
The bodies later were taken away in refrigerator trucks, and San Pedro Sula's mayor, Oscar Kilgore, said the city would donate coffins for the dead.
Officials initially said the fire was caused by an overheated refrigerator, because inmates said they heard the appliance explode. But firefighters later said an air conditioner short circuit was to blame.
Many of the imprisoned gang members were detained during the country's recent crackdown on gang violence. In August, Honduras passed legislation outlawing gangs and establishing minimum sentences of 12 years for members.
There are more than 100,000 gang members belonging to 500 different gangs in Honduras. All the prisoners in the destroyed cellblock belonged to Mara Salvatrucha, one of the most violent of Central America's gangs.
The new law exacerbated the country's prison overcrowding problem. Honduras's penitentiaries consist of 27 old buildings housing 13,000 prisoners, twice the capacity.