PENSACOLA, Fla. – The jail already had two feet of water in the basement from the record-setting rains when an apparent gas explosion leveled the inside of the building, killing two inmates and injuring more than 180 other people, officials said Thursday.
In the rubble and chaos, inmates were trapped and had to be rescued. Others were treated for their injuries in the parking lot. In all, 600 inmates rushed out of the jail. The injured were taken by bus to hospitals while the others were sent to nearby jails.
Authorities lost track of three inmates in the confusion, but by late afternoon, they were confident everyone was accounted for.
Inmate Monique Barnes told the Associated Press by telephone that she was knocked off her fourth-floor bunk.
“The explosion shook us so hard it was like we were in an earthquake,” Barnes said. “It was like a movie, a horrible, horrible movie.”
Pieces of glass, brick and inmates’ flip-flops were strewn about on the ground outside the jail. The front of the building appeared bowed, with cracks throughout.
Barnes, who spoke to AP after she was taken to another jail, said she and other inmates complained of smelling gas ahead of the blast, and some reported headaches.
County spokesman Bill Pearson said they didn’t receive any 911 calls about gas nor did they have any reports of an odor.
Investigators said it could take days to determine what caused the explosion. They were having a hard time getting to the epicenter in the back of the building because there was so much damage.
Joseph Steadman, the head of the state fire and arson bureau, described it as a “collapse of concrete floors between the basement and upper floors.”
He said it was still too early to say if the weather had anything to do with it.
Richard Long, a Colorado-based engineer who owns a construction consulting firm, said flooding could cause a gas leak by moving pipes around. The flooding occurred in the jail’s basement, where the kitchen and laundry were located. No inmates were housed there, officials said.
More than 15 inches of rain fell on Pensacola on Tuesday, the rainiest single day since forecasters started keeping records in 1880. Neighborhoods were flooded, and hundreds of people had to be rescued from homes and cars.
The jail was running on generator power after the flooding. Barnes, the inmate, said the toilets weren’t working, so inmates had to use plastic trash bags.
Pearson said 184 people were taken to hospitals and only two inmates and one corrections officer were still there Thursday afternoon. He wouldn’t describe the extent of their injuries, citing privacy laws.
One female inmate went into labor during the explosion and later had a healthy baby, county spokeswoman Kathleen Castro said.
About 200 men and 400 women were in the building. Barnes said during the evacuation, hundreds of inmates and corrections officers had to use one stairwell, “everyone pushing and bleeding.”
The names of the inmates killed weren’t immediately released.
“Every inmate is accounted for,” said Lumon May, chairman of the Escambia County board of commissioners. “Most important to us was the lives and safety of our inmates.”
After the blast, a group of relatives and attorneys for the inmates stood behind police tape that cordoned off the area, trying to figure out where loved ones had been taken. Many family members were upset because they said they were left in the dark.
Defense attorney Gene Mitchell was reviewing dozens of text messages from clients’ relatives.
“I have over 20 clients in there,” he said. “I’ve had dozens of calls. Every other call is a family member wanting to know what has happened to a loved one.”
He said he hasn’t been able to get much information about the inmates. Castro said officials were having trouble notifying families because for hours it wasn’t safe to enter the jail to access computers and paper records. Later, officials promised better updates for families on the county’s website.
Eddie Williams, whose son was an inmate, said he did eventually hear that his son was taken to the hospital.
At one point during a sheriff’s news conference earlier in the day, Sheila Travis interrupted, demanding to know what happened to her son.
“My son has not been accounted for, how do you think family members are feeling that their kids haven’t been accounted for?” she said.
It wasn’t immediately clear if she ever found out what happened to him.
The sheriff told her the county had taken over jail operations from him last year, and directed her questions to them.
The county took control of the jail and its 400 employees Oct. 1 after a five-year federal investigation. According to the Pensacola News Journal, problems included too few guards overseeing the inmates, which led to violence, poor mental health care and a decades-long practice of segregating inmates by race.
Morgan has been sheriff, an elected position, since 2009.