Thursday, February 22, 2018
Public safety

With inmates locked up, focus is on cause of Pensacola jail blast

PENSACOLA — When an apparent gas explosion leveled a Florida jail and killed two inmates, officials had to rescue prisoners trapped in the rubble, evacuate the building and treat the injured in the parking lot and hospitals. Then, they had to find new secure facilities for 600 inmates.

By Thursday afternoon, authorities appeared to have pulled off the logistical feat, shuttling nearly all of them to several jails. Two inmates and a corrections officer were still in hospitals after 180 or so prisoners and guards were treated and released. One inmate reportedly went into labor and had a baby in the chaos.

With the inmates locked up again, attention quickly turned to exactly what caused the blast. Inmates told news outlets they smelled gas before the explosion, but officials said it they had no record of those reports.

Investigators said it could take days to figure out exactly what happened. They were having a hard time getting to the epicenter of the blast in the back of the building because of so much damage.

Joseph Steadman, the head of the state fire and arson bureau, described it as a "collapse of concrete floors between the basement and upper floors."

The basement was flooded with about 2 feet of rain after the record-setting rainfall this week in Pensacola, but Steadman said it was still too early to say if the weather had anything to do with it. The basement houses the kitchen and laundry. No inmates were locked up there, officials said.

Authorities briefly lost track of three inmates in the confusion, but later were confident that none had escaped.

"Every inmate is accounted for," said Lumon May, chairman of the Escambia County board of commissioners. "Most important to us was the lives and safety of our inmates."

Officials have requested 100 beds from the state to help alleviate some of the stress on the jail system.

Inmate Monique Barnes told the Associated Press by telephone that she was knocked off her fourth-floor bunk.

"The explosion shook us so hard it was like we were in an earthquake," Barnes said. "It was like a movie, a horrible, horrible movie."

Pieces of glass, brick and inmates' flip-flops were strewn about on the ground outside the jail. The front of the building appeared bowed, with cracks throughout.

Barnes, who spoke to AP after she was taken to another jail, said she and other inmates complained of smelling gas ahead of the blast, and some reported headaches.

More than 15 inches of rain fell on Pensacola on Tuesday, the rainiest single day since forecasters started keeping records in 1880. Neighborhoods were flooded and hundreds of people had to be rescued from homes and cars.

The jail was running on generator power after the flooding. Barnes, the inmate, said the toilets weren't working, so inmates had to use plastic trash bags.

About 200 men and 400 women were in the building. Barnes said during the evacuation, hundreds of inmates and corrections officers had to use one stairwell, "everyone pushing and bleeding."

After the blast, a group of relatives and attorneys for the inmates stood behind police tape that cordoned off the area, trying to figure out where loved ones had been taken. Many family members were upset because they said they were left in the dark.

Defense attorney Gene Mitchell was reviewing dozens of text messages from clients' relatives.

"I have over 20 clients in there," he said. "I've had dozens of calls. Every other call is a family member wanting to know what has happened to a loved one."

He said he wasn't able to get much information about the inmates.

County spokeswoman Kathleen Castro said officials were having trouble notifying families because for hours it wasn't safe to enter the jail to access computers and paper records. Later, officials promised better updates for families on the county's website.

The names of the inmates killed weren't immediately released.

The county took control of the jail and its 400 employees on Oct. 1 after a five-year federal investigation. According to the Pensacola News Journal, problems included too few guards overseeing the inmates, which led to violence, poor mental health care and a decades-long practice of segregating inmates by race.

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