Chile prison fire kills at least 81

A fire set off by rioting prisoners in an overcrowded facility near the Chilean capital has killed at least 81 inmates and left about 20 guards or inmates injured, officials say.

High death toll blamed in part on overcrowding

The deadly fire broke out on the fourth floor of No. 5 tower at the San Miguel prison near Santiago, Chile, on Wednesday. ((Aliosha Marquez/Associated Press))

A fire set off by rioting prisoners in an overcrowded facility near the Chilean capital has killed at least 81 inmates and left about 20 guards or inmates injured, officials say.

Early reports quoted officials as saying 83 people had been confirmed dead, but Santiago region Gov. Fernando Echeverria said the official toll was still 81.

The blaze broke out early Wednesday at the San Miguel prison, south of Santiago. Officials say inmates set fire to mattresses on the fourth floor of the No. 5 tower.

Chileans nationwide could hear the screams of dying inmates in the background as a prisoner used an illegal cellphone to call state television for help.

Relatives of inmates told state television that prison police had closed the gates to the prison, initially impeding access for firefighters.

Relatives of inmates in San Miguel prison react as they wait for news after Wednesday's fire. ((Roberto Candia/Associated Press))

Some relatives said they pleaded with authorities to let them rescue their loved ones themselves. They said they heard no news for hours, before officials appeared to read them a list, which only named some of the survivors.

National prison police director Luis Masferrer said the blaze broke out around 5:30 a.m. local time and was brought under control three hours later.

Chile's health minister, Jaime Manalich, called the fire an "enormous calamity" after arriving at the prison, "probably the worst in the history of our penitentiary system. There's a significant number of dead."

Justice Minister Felipe Bulnes acknowledged that decades of overcrowding in the prison system played a factor in the high death toll and said officials were working to resolve the problem.

He admitted the San Miguel prison had been housing 1,960 inmates, but was only built to accommodate 1,100.

President Sabastian Pinera said prison overcrowding has left Chile with a "penitentiary system that isn't worthy of our country."

With files from The Associated Press