Jail blast paralyzes officer

(PNJ.com) - It's been said that disaster brings out the best in people, and Wednesday night, as the dust settled on the Escambia County Jail's central booking facility, both tragedy and heroism were on display.

Two inmates were killed and 184 detainees and corrections officers were injured when an apparent natural gas explosion tore through the building around 11 p.m.

Christopher Hankinson, a correctional officer and father of three, was among the more seriously injured.

Hankinson worked in the property room — directly above the blast's epicenter. When the blast happened, he was thrown through a hole in the floor, into the flooded basement. The impact crushed a vertebrae, multiple ribs and a shoulder blade, a family member said. He likely would have drowned there had it not been for a co-worker's heroism.

Kelley Bradford, who also worked in the property room, held Hankinson's head above water for nearly an hour while they waited for help to arrive. Bradford could not be reached for comment Sunday, but her daughter, Kelley Gonzalez, recounted the ordeal.

"She was sitting at her desk one minute," Gonzalez said, "and the next, she's coming up out of the water in the basement. It was completely dark except for one fluorescent light that was kind of hanging from the ceiling."

Bewildered, Bradford called out for Hankinson, but got no response. When she finally found him, he was lying in the water, unable to move. For the next hour, Gonzales said, her mother held Hankinson's head above water. Several times, the petite 55-year-old's back started to give out, but she didn't let go.

"She was actually straddling him and holding him by the shirt trying to keep him alive," Gonzalez said.

Hankinson's wife, Shannon, who also worked at the jail, declined an interview Sunday, saying she wanted to wait until her husband had recovered to decide whether to speak to the press. Hankinson did confirm that her husband had been injured during the explosion and was currently recovering from surgery at the UAB Hospital, at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. She also expressed thankfulness for Bradford's heroic actions.

On Sunday, Gonzalez said her mother had sustained minor injuries during the explosion. "I mean, it looks like a gang of folks went at her with a baseball bat on her legs," she said. "She's bruised up real bad, but she's alive."

Gonzalez's relief was tempered with frustration, however. She said she was angry with jail administrators, who she said ignored persistent complaints from employees and inmates who smelled natural gas in the days leading up to the explosion.

"I almost lost my mother. I could have," she said, "and that's what upsets me the most — the neglect and disregard to human life."

County officials have denied receiving any complaints. However, Gonzalez, who knows many of the jail's employees, disputed that.

"The truth is the truth," she said, "and the truth is that they could have prevented this ... (Hankinson) just didn't deserve this. To know that he's probably not going to walk again — it's heartbreaking."

Hankinson's niece, Carmen Stone, set up a fund-raising site in the days following her uncle's injury, to try to help the family pay for the cost of medical bills and incidental expenses. As of Sunday at noon, 55 people had donated a total of $4,510 to the family via the site. To join the cause, visit www.gofundme.com/8thhj4.


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