By MELISSA NELSON-GABRIEL
PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) -- 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
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
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
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.
John Mone and John Raoux of The Associated Press contributed to this
report in Pensacola. Associated Press writer Freida Frisaro in Miami