Pensacola, Florida (PNJ) -- The sagging floorboards of the second story of the Escambia County Jail were just barely visible through a gaping, jagged hole in the first-floor wall Thursday morning, testament to the force of an explosion that killed two male inmates and injured 184 other detainees, corrections officers and jail employees.
David Paul Weinstein, 45, and Robert Earl Simmons, 54, were killed in the blast, and the five-story facility, which housed hundreds of inmates, is likely a total loss, officials said.
The destruction occurred at 11 p.m. Wednesday night when a blast caused by leaking natural gas tore through the first floor of the Escambia County Jail Central Booking Division. Baptist Hospital facilities in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, Sacred Heart Hospital and West Florida Hospital emergency rooms were inundated with patients, almost all with non-life threatening injuries.
"It's pretty much complete destruction," Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said of the facility at a news conference Thursday morning.
Approximately 600 people were in the building when the blast went off, county spokesman Bill Pearson said. People living in neighborhoods miles away from the West Leonard Street facility reported hearing the boom.
Pearson said late Thursday afternoon that every single person in the facility had been accounted for. At that time, all but two of the surviving inmates and one corrections officer had been treated and released from the hospital.
Kathleen Dough-Castro, chief public information officer for the county, said Friday morning that she could not confirm media reports of one inmate who had reportedly gone into labor during the chaos, because of HIPPA restrictions.
"I can say that a pregnant inmate was removed almost immediately after the blast, and she appeared to have been in labor," Castro said.
The two men who were killed were found in close proximity to each other near a large amount of debris, Morgan said. Early reports from county officials indicate that the explosion was caused by a natural gas leak in a basement laundry facility.
Natural gas theory
Investigators from the Public Florida Service Commission, the State Fire Marshal's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the explosion. The Escambia County Sheriff's Office is investigating the deaths of the inmates.
At the news conference outside the jail Thursday, officials had few answers to the how or why the explosion occurred.
"We're here for the purpose of getting to the bottom of this, but it's going to take some time," State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater said.
Morgan reported that the basement had been flooded during Tuesday night's storms, and a retention wall reportedly collapsed from water damage.
Morgan said inmates were not evacuated from the jail because, "the area in the building where flooding occurred did not endanger inmates." He said the same area of the facility had flooded in previous rains, and been recently remodeled.
Addressing a group of people who gathered outside the jail, Morgan said there would be an investigation into reports of inmates and corrections officers smelling gas in the building during the 24 hours prior to the explosion.
Pearson said there were no documented complaints about leaking gas in the hours before the blast. But he noted that the ground floor of the building where the blast is thought to have originated contained a laundry room with gas dryers and a kitchen.
Bev DeMello, an assistant director at the Florida Public Service Commission, said in an e-mail interview that the problem, "appears to be an inside pipe." That would mean the leak was not from part of the gas main or service lines maintained by Pensacola Energy, the gas utility owned by the city of Pensacola, but rather a pipe — or possibly some other gas source — inside the jail facility.
Pensacola Energy issued a similar statement, saying that, "the gas main leading to the building is operating in a safe and effective manner."
Escambia County Corrections Director Gordon Pike said the county would not speculate on what may have sparked the explosion or what led to it until a full investigation was complete.
Morgan said the jail is likely a complete loss.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, inmates and corrections officers were quickly evacuated from the building and loaded onto buses. The wounded were taken to five hospitals in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
Inmates without injuries were distributed among other Escambia County detention facilities, with the exception of 200 female inmates who were transported to the Santa Rosa County jail direct supervision unit.
Officials declined to comment on where inmates would be housed in the long term.
"So far our focus has been making sure that everyone is safe and accounted for," Pearson said. "I'm not sure if (long-term housing) is a conversation we've even started yet. The good thing is that we all cooperate, and the question of whose going to foot the bill doesn't come up, everyone just helps out where they can."
Sheriff Morgan relinquished custody of the jail Oct. 1, 2013, after heated debates with Escambia County commissioners concerning cuts to the jail's budget.
The jail in currently operated by Escambia County.