(PNJ.com) - The Florida Division of the State Fire Marshal returned the Escambia County Jail's central booking facility to the county's control Thursday afternoon.
Investigators from the state and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had closed the building as part of an inquiry into the April 30 blast that killed two inmates, paralyzed a corrections officer and injured 184 others.
The return of the building to county control does not mean the investigation has concluded. In a letter sent Thursday to Lumon May, chairman of the Escambia County Commission, Joseph Steadman, chief of the Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations within the Division of the State Fire Marshal, said the investigation was ongoing but that the deterioration of the jail structure had prompted safety concerns.
"As a result," Steadman wrote, "... investigative personnel are no longer allowed to enter the remaining structure."
Steadman went on to urge commissioners to restrict access to the building until it could once more be deemed safe. The front entrance to the building has been shored up temporarily, and authorities are in the process of erecting a fence around the blast zone. The Escambia County Sheriff's Office is patrolling the structure until that work is complete.
Escambia County Commissioners had apologized earlier in the day to the families of those killed and injured in the blast. For hours after the disaster struck, the families of the more than 400 inmates who were incarcerated at the facility waited anxiously for news of their loved ones' fates. Many expressed frustration with the lack of information coming out of the county. Speaking at a committee meeting Thursday morning, May said he wished more had been done for them.
"In retrospect, I wish that information could have gotten to them sooner," he said. "… We have protocol to follow, but that doesn't take away the anxiety that many of these parents had ... I do want to say to those parents who were left in the dark for so many hours that we do apologize. We were working as hard as we could."
May promised "transparency, clear policy and openness" in the months ahead. "What I'm expecting from the staff is truth, so that I can take that back to my constituents," he said. Interim County Administrator Larry Newsom said he had directed county staff to fully comply with state and federal authorities as their investigation moves forward.
"We have nothing to hide," Newsom said, "and my goal is to make sure they get all the information. My staff will give them 100 percent cooperation."
May said he was "disappointed" after reading a News Journal report of inmates not receiving adequate care in the days before and after the blast — specifically referencing the article's account that inmates had been forced by persistent flooding in the day leading up to the disaster to defecate and urinate in plastic bags.
"Whatever we need to do to ensure that these people are being treated humanely, let's get it done," May said.
The commissioner directed Gordon Pike, director of the county's department of corrections, to do all that was necessary to ensure that those inmates injured by the blast received the medical support they need and called on county staff to hold a town hall meeting to answer questions from those affected by the blast.
"I think the quicker we get that information out, the more credibility we have," May said. "... If I need to initiate it, I will."
The chairman also made a point to recognize the heroism of many of the inmates involved in the blast. He recounted stories of some who had hauled fellow inmates and correctional officers from the rubble, rather than trying to escape.
County Attorney Alison Rogers said her office had already begun receiving calls from attorneys representing the families of blast victims. She advised commissioners to expect "civil litigation at the least" in the coming months and asked that they refrain from speculating publicly about the causes of the explosion until clearer information was available.
Looking toward the future, Commissioner Grover Robinson called on his colleagues to consider moving the jail to a more suitable location.
"We got placed into that location by past boards, past decisions," he said. "… We've got to be thinking now about how we're going to move the jail forward. I don't see how we're going to be in that location (any longer), knowing it floods."