Police and soldiers dragged out the charred remains of convicts in black body bags, hurling them onto a pile outside a Honduran prison where over 350 people died on Tuesday night, choking and screaming as they were engulfed in flames.
As the darkness deepened in Comayagua National Penitentiary, north of the capital Tegucigalpa, the last remaining bereaved family members melted away. But groups of workers continued to stack up bodies, which landed with heavy thuds.
The corpses are charred and some of them are stuck on top of each other, said Johnny Ordenez, a Honduran soldier lugging the dead. You have to peel them apart like an orange.
Hondurans already live in the most murderous country on the planet, according to a United Nations report last year. But the Comayagua fire, apparently started by one of the prisoners, was one of the worst prison blazes anywhere in history.
As the inferno raged, some of the 850 or so inmates managed to force their way to safety through the tin roofs of the prison, a dark maze-like structure with narrow open-air hallways lined with white and blue brick walls.
But by the time the media were allowed in, there was still evidence of those who did not escape the gutted complex, where the smell of charred flesh hung heavily in the air.
One scorched cadaver lay face down on the floor, both legs pulled up close to the fetal position, with its arm outstretched into the corner of the cell. Two police and a soldier arrived to drag it away, to place it in the heap of bodies.
Nearby in a recreational area, an acoustic guitar lay on a blood-soaked floor next to the burned remnants of pool tables.
Loaded up onto trailers, the dead were sent to a morgue in Tegucigalpa, where relatives waited expectantly.
I'm here for my son's body, I must bury him, my wife and the rest of my family are waiting for me, said Octavo Aguilera, a 59-year-old agricultural worker. I'm not leaving here without him.
ESCAPE FROM THE FLAMES
The attorney general's office put the death toll at 359. The police said some of those presumed dead may have escaped.
Survivors accused guards of ignoring their calls for help, and reported horrific scenes of suffering as trapped convicts struggled to escape before the fire consumed them, as they were trapped in their cells.
'Guards, we're burning, we're dying, open the cells.' But the guards didn't want to help, they let the people die, survivor Antonio Valladaras, told local radio.
Some angry relatives of inmates blamed the government for the inferno, which the provincial governor said had apparently been caused by a prisoner lighting his mattress. It was not clear why the inmate would have started the fire.
Outside the prison, police looked on impassively as dozens of friends and relatives of the convicts threw sticks at them, shouting Murderers.
Racked by gang violence, drug cartels and poverty, Honduras has struggled to maintain law and order since a coup in 2009 divided the already troubled Central American nation.
At more than 80 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, Honduras' murder rate is 16 times that of the United States, according to the U.N. study.
Its jails are overflowing with prisoners, and Honduras had suffered serious blazes at prisons in the past decade.
But the degree of slaughter in Comayagua has thrown the country's problems into sharp relief, said Dana Frank, an expert on Honduras at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
We're talking about a total breakdown of the state, she said.
(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Editing by Philip Barbara)