Jail explosion kills two

Pensacola, Florida (USA TODAY) -- Three inmates missing Thursday after an apparent gas explosion at a northwest Florida jail are believed to be in a hospital or in transit, officials said.

Two inmates, whose names have not been released, died in the blast at about 11 p.m. CT Wednesday at the Escambia County Central Booking and Detention Center here, county Sheriff David Morgan said. About 150 detainees and corrections officers were injured.

A portion of the jail was demolished, and the explosion rattled houses up to 3 miles away. County officials had to evacuate about 600 inmates to secure facilities and now are working with state and federal agencies to perform a head count of all who were in the jail at the time of the explosion.

No additional bodies have been discovered, and all corrections officers have been accounted for. But inmates were transported to five local hospitals and jails across the Panhandle, and Morgan said earlier that some could have escaped during the confusion.

"The complicated part is we've had people taken to hospitals, to other jails," county spokesman Bill Pearson said. "It's a moving target."

Officials — including the interim county administrator, the Florida State Fire Marshal's Division and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — have been working to confirm everyone's location.

About 200 female inmates were taken to the Santa Rosa County Jail in Milton, Fla. about 25 miles northwest of Pensacola, said Kathleen Dough-Castro, Escambia County's chief public information officer.

"They haven't given us any information," said Sarah Sedes, who rushed to the jail Thursday morning with her aunt to see if her cousin was among the wounded or dead. "No one will even tell us if he's alive."

Corrections officers are attempting to arrange for each inmate to contact family members, Morgan said later, and authorities have established a telephone line for people to call for information on a relative's location.

Engineers were able to enter the central building of the jail Thursday and are assessing its stability, Dough-Castro said.

Morgan said he expects the building to be a total loss.

The cause of the explosion has not yet been determined. Dough-Castro said the jail had suffered some flooding during the preceding two days of storms but added that no one knows yet whether the flooding contributed to the blast. A retention wall inside the jail compound had collapsed because of flood damage.

After the blast, droves of police officers and first responders roamed the area in the wee hours of Thursday morning, corralling inmates into school buses so they could be transported to other detention facilities. Emergency personnel from as far as Orange Beach, Ala., 30 miles west, responded to the scene.

Dozens of people — both inmates and corrections officers — were taken out of the jail on stretchers and transported to area hospitals under police guard.

Thirty-one people were admitted to Sacred Heart Hospital, all with non life-threatening injuries, spokesman Mike Burke said Thursday. Eighty-one victims were being treated at Baptist Hospital facilities — 50 in Pensacola and 31 about 10 miles away in Gulf Breeze — a spokeswoman said Thursday morning. Meanwhile, 37 patients were being treated for minor injuries at West Florida Hospital here, spokesman Kendrick Doidge said.

By an hour after the explosion, streets around the facility had been cordoned off.

Several bystanders reported speaking with family members inside the jail, who had complained of a strong odor of gas as late as 90 minutes before the blast. One woman said a friend inside the facility told her the county was using temporary generators to cope with power outages from the recent storm. He suspected them as the source of the odors.

Debra Griffin said she was frustrated from the lack of communication. Griffin's son, nephew and daughter-in-law were housed in the facility. She left her job at a nearby adult care center when she heard about the explosion in hopes of learning whether her loved ones were safe.

"All I wanted to do was see my little ones," she said. Instead, she saw people being carried away on stretchers and in body bags.

Pensacola resident Mary Norris had two sons — one 28-year-old and one 29-year-old — in the jail at the time of the explosion.

"From the moment I heard about it, I left as quick as I could from my house and made it here, and I've been here ever since," she said early Thursday.

The jail has a troubled history. County officials are negotiating a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve the findings of a scathing five-year federal investigation of the facility.

The investigation, which wrapped up in May 2013, determined that inadequate management had led to routine violations of inmates' constitutional rights.

Federal investigators cited problems including a low number of guards watching over many inmates, which contributed to what the report called "appalling" levels of violence, "clearly inadequate" mental health care and a recently discontinued practice of segregating inmates according to race.

Morgan, who was manager of the jail then, told investigators in April that he had put an end to that decades-long practice.

Escambia County officials agreed in June to take over the jail from Morgan and take responsibility for the federal government's findings after weeks of tense debate on how to address the report. The hand-off took place six months ago, on Oct. 1.


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