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81 dead in horror blaze at overcrowded Chile prison

Fire engulfed a prison in the Chilean capital Santiago early |yesterday, killing 81 inmates and critically injuring 14 others in the worst-ever accident in the |country's penal system.

Prison officials said the fire was deliberately started during an early-morning fight between |inmates in one of the crowded prison's five towers.

Television footage showed part of the San Miguel prison in flames, with black smoke billowing from the building.

Chile's health minister, Jaime Manalich, called it an “enormous calamity,” “probably the worst in the history of our penitentiary system.”

Frantic relatives of the inmates flooded to the jail's walls, screaming and imploring police to let them in to rescue their loved ones. Many families did not yet know their relatives' fate.

It was visitors' day at the prison, and many family members were already queuing up outside when the fire broke out.

“It is exasperating not to know if they are alive or dead. We have been here for hours and they haven't told us anything,” said a woman called Maria, who declined to give her surname.

Some relatives screamed when officials read out names of prisoners who had survived the blaze, |assuming those not included were dead. But officials said the lists were incomplete.

Some relatives threw rocks and glass bottles and scuffled with police inside the prison perimeter in frustration. Others said that prison police initially closed the gates to firefighters, impeding |efforts by 10 responding units to control the blaze.

“They wouldn't let the firefighters come in. The riot police came in first and began to beat us, and later the firefighters came in,” an unidentified prisoner said in a mobile phone call.

Firefighters said they were alerted to the fire by a call made from a mobile phone inside the prison.

Authorities have not said why so many inmates died in the part of the prison where the blaze began, on the third floor of Tower 5. Firefighters had to work with police to avoid more problems with prisoners all around them.

“There are 81 dead, and we hope that figure won't rise,” said Luis Masferrer, the director of the |national prison system. “This |reflects the precarious state of Chile's prison system, which we have been denouncing and working to rectify since we took over [in March].

Justice Minister Felipe Bulnes said the prison facility housed 1,960 inmates, whereas its official capacity is 1,100.

Reports from radio station Bio Bio stated that around 200 inmates had to be evacuated into a jail yard due to the fire, which a local state prosecutor said was started deliberately.

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