(PNJ.com) - As a boy growing up in Warrington, Chris Hankinson tried his hand at surfing. Sometimes, the waves would fling him from the board and he would tumble along the sandy bottom of the Gulf like a rag doll in a washing machine.
Jail blast leaves officer paralyzed from waist down
"I remember being tumbled in the water, not knowing which way was up," Hankinson recounted Thursday from his hospital room in Birmingham, Ala.
On April 30, when a natural gas explosion flung Hankinson into the flooded basement of Escambia County's Central Booking and Detention Facility and his body was tumbled with chunks of cement and debris, he thought about those childhood days.
"It kind of reminded me of that," he said. "I had all this debris. All this cement was falling on top of me ... I honestly thought I wasn't going to make it. I thought I was going to be buried alive just like in 9/11. I thought I was dead." He also thought about his three children.
"It's just like they say in the movies," he said. "I kind of felt a guilt, a sadness that my kids were going to grow up without a father. That's what I thought. And it was the worst feeling I've ever felt."
Hankinson had worked for Escambia County as a correctional officer for 17 years — along with his wife, Shannon. He worked in the property room, processing inmates' personal belongings, and she worked upstairs in the inmate housing pods.
Both were working the night of April 30. They clocked in about 7 p.m. Almost immediately, Shannon Hankinson said, she noticed the smell of natural gas. She and her co-workers complained of the odor to their supervisor during a preshift meeting. Hankinson said they were told that the day shift already had complained of the odor and that maintenance had inspected the problem and that all was well. However, as the night wore on, it became clear that was not the case.
Shannon Hankinson said the odor became so overwhelming that several of the inmates under her care couldn't move. They lay in their beds sick and vomiting, and she had a headache from the fumes. Overwhelmed by the odor, she called her husband and asked whether he had a box fan she could borrow. Hankinson had been using the fan to keep cool in the property room, but he lugged it up the stairs to his wife and returned to the first floor.
Speaking Thursday, Shannon Hankinson said she wished she had instead asked him for something else — because he would have done anything for her.
"I wish I had asked him to go and get me a Whataburger," she said. "Then, he wouldn't have been there when the explosion happened."
The blast — which is currently being investigated by the State Fire Marshall's Office and the Division of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — tore through the building's flooded basement about 11 p.m., shortly after Hankinson returned to his desk. Robert Earl Simmons and David Paul Weinstein — both inmates at the time — were killed. Another 184 detainees and corrections officers — including Hankinson — were injured.
Shannon Hankinson saw the fireball from the upstairs window. The impact of the blast cracked the floor beneath her and threw inmates from their bunks. One story down, Hankinson was typing information into a computer when everything went black.
"It felt like someone took a baseball bat, swung it at me and hit me as hard as they could," he said. An instant later, he was underwater, paralyzed from the waist down, rolling with chunks of cement, and dreaming of childhood, death and his fatherless children.
When his head finally broke the surface, he realized he was still alive. It was dark, and a single light dangled from the ceiling. Over the sound of rushing water, he could hear Kelley Bradford calling out: "Hankinson, Hankinson."
Bradford — a petite woman of 55 — also worked in the property room. That night, the explosion ripped a hole in the floor and plunged both workers into the basement — which already was flooded to the roof by the prior day's torrential rainfall.
Hankinson called back to Bradford, and she scrambled and swam through the water and debris to his side. The tiny woman then dragged his 220-pound frame onto a slab of broken cement, straddled him and held his head above water for almost to an hour until help arrived.
Hankinson, whose shoulders were broken in the blast, told Bradford to leave him — to prop him up and find help. But she refused.
"She said, 'Chris, I'm not leaving without you. We're both getting out of here alive,' " Hankinson recounted. Bradford's words proved true. An hour later, a rescue worker found them and a crew of firefighters lowered a ladder into the basement so that Bradford could climb out. A fireman named Jason then hefted Hankinson's broken frame into a rescue basket and lifted him to safety. Hankinson was ecstatic: "I said, 'Jason, I love you. I'm gonna buy you a beer when we get out of here.' "
The two men have yet to get that beer.
After being pulled from the rubble, Hankinson was rushed to Baptist Hospital. His body temperature was only 78 degrees upon arrival and he immediately had to undergo heart surgery. Hankinson said the impact of the blast snapped his aorta like a rubber band. In the wee hour of May 1, doctors inserted a stint and replaced his aorta with a vein lifted from anpother part of his body.
Later that day, he was flown by jet to the University of Alabama Birmingham hospital, where he underwent more surgery. While on the operating table, he developed fluid buildup in one lung. While trying to fix the problem, doctors ruptured Hankinson's lung, spleen and diaphragm, he said. He ran out of blood, and his heart stopped pumping.
"They had to reach up into my chest and pump my heart with their hand," Hankinson said. It worked.
Today, Hankinson is once more in stable condition, though his ribs still hurt when he laughs or talks too much. Besides the damage to his heart and shoulders, he also suffered seven broken ribs, a cracked pelvic socket, and severe spinal damage. A vertebra was shattered and had to be removed. Three more vertebrae had to be fused together, and a fourth was cracked.
Hankinson said his medical costs were all covered by workers' compensation through the county. However, the doctors have told Hankinson he likely will not walk again.
"There's a 5 percent chance that I'll ever gain any feeling back in my legs," he said Thursday.
Hankinson and his family planned to Birmingham on Father's Day for the New Life rehabilitation center in Orlando. There, he will relearn old skills, like sitting upright in a chair, and also gain new ones, like transferring from his wheelchair to a vehicle. The doctors have told him he probably will be home in six months, but Hankinson hopes to be back in half that time.
"I will beat their expectations, just like I have done so far," he said.
Despite his ordeal, Hankinson has so far avoided sinking into resentment and depression.
"I haven't had a chance to get emotionally depressed over it," he said. "If anything, it's made me appreciate how much love is in everybody's hearts, how many friends I have and how much they really care about me. I've had a tremendous number of people drive up here from Pensacola just to spend an hour with me, hold my hand and give me a hug. It's been amazing how many people are out there who really care."
Hankinson said he also took comfort in the outpouring of support on social media. Someone started a Facebook page in his honor in the days after the explosion. The page had attracted 1,320 likes by Friday — many of them from total strangers — and was filled with messages of support.
"It was crazy to see all these people who had my name on their profile pictures ..." Hankinson said. "That's what keeps me going every day. If I get down, all I gotta do is pickup my phone and look at Facebook. That's a big pick me up right there. So many people tell me every day that they are sending their prayers and their love and that they're thinking about me and care about me. How can you get depressed with stuff like that?"
Hankinson is determined to not let the April 30 tragedy define him. Before the blast, his passions included fishing and classic cars. He bought a 1968 Mustang, taught himself to do body work and refurbished it.
"It was absolutely mint. It was beautiful," Hankinson said. He recently sold both the car and his 24-foot boat and used the proceeds to purchase a home in Pace so that his three children could take advantage of the better school system there. He still has another 1968 Mustang sitting in the garage. It needs a lot more work, but Hankinson said he was committed to fixing it — wheelchair or none.
"Even though I'm confined to a wheelchair, I am going to adapt and overcome," he said. "I am going to fix that car up. ... I have to figure out different ways of doing things because obviously I can't just jump up and pull the transmission out like I was used to doing. I'll learn to do it, though, and I'll learn to do different things. That's just a challenge that I'll have to overcome."