May 17

This Day in History

Disaster

May 17, 1994:

Fire engulfs Honduras prison

A fire in an overcrowded Honduras prison kills 103 people on this day in 1994. An overheated refrigerator motor sparked the horrible blaze that raced through the outdated jail. Only a year earlier, a gang fight at the same prison had left nearly 70 people dead.

The prison, in San Pedro Sula, 100 miles north of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, was largely devoted to housing gang members arrested in a recent crackdown. This new emphasis on jailing gang members resulted in a prison population of nearly 2,000, although the structure was built to accommodate only 800. The fire and explosion took place in a cell block that housed 186 prisoners belonging to the Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13. The fire started in one of two small refrigerators located in the cell block at about 1:30 a.m. Prisoner Jose Lopez reported, "Everything happened fast. We woke up with our clothes and our beds in flames." Guards reported that they had to fire their guns in the air in order to keep the prisoners from attacking the firefighters and escaping. Inmates claimed that the guards were preventing the prisoners from fleeing the fire.

As news of the fire became public, relatives of the prisoners began gathering outside the prison. Officials then placed the bodies of the dead in rows on the ground for identification, which was often made through their elaborate gang-related tattoos, before refrigerated trucks transported them to a morgue.

The Honduran government continued its anti-gang activity in the wake of the tragedy, but also took steps to prevent prison overcrowding.

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This Week in History, May 17 - May 23

May 17, 1994
Fire engulfs Honduras prison
May 18, 1980
Mount St. Helens erupts
May 19, 1997
Avian flu kills young boy
May 20, 1965
Plane crashes at Cairo airport
May 21, 1960
Huge earthquake hits Chile
May 22, 1967
Belgian department store burns
May 23, 1960
Tsunami hits Hawaii

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