BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Officials recovered the bodies of 30 prisoners Monday from a fire-scorched cellblock where inmates lit mattresses in a what appeared to be an escape attempt, the worst prison fire in Argentina since 2005.
Many of the victims were found in a prison bathroom, their faces covered with rags they had apparently used to filter out the dense smoke as flames raced through a cellblock at a men's penitentiary Sunday night, according to authorities.
Ricardo Daives, justice minister for the central Argentine province of Santiago del Estero, said 29 dead were found dead in the cellblock, one of seven units. Another inmate died Monday at a hospital, authorities added, and at least 14 inmates and prison guards were treated for burns, smoke inhalation and other injuries.
Daives said inmates apparently set the fire to try to distract guards as part of plan to escape.
"Parts of the cellblock were set on fire and that produced this whole situation," he said on the independent Todo Noticias network.
The minister said mattresses and other flammable materials inside one of the seven prison units swiftly caught fire, spewing dense smoke. The entire prison houses more than 450 inmates.
Prison officials said none of the inmates managed to escape, though prisoners in two other pavilions also tried to set small fires, which were quickly extinguished.
The last major prison fire in Argentina killed 32 inmates in 2005 at a penitentiary in Magdalena, southeast of the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. The worst prison tragedy in Argentina's modern history was the Villa Devoto uprising in 1978 in the capital in which 61 people died.
Dozens of anxious relatives gathered outside the penitentiary on Monday as authorities searched for remains.
Riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to restore calm after some 200 relatives tried to break through barricades blocking an entrance to the penitentiary Sunday night, the government news agency Telam reported.
Some relatives disputed official claims of a possible escape attempt, saying prisoners were demanding better food, more family visits and speedier trials.