PENSACOLA, Fla. – An apparent gas explosion all but destroyed a jail in the Florida Panhandle, killing two inmates and injuring more than 180 people, and officials lost track of three inmates in the chaos, authorities said Thursday.
The three inmates were always under authorities control, but went unaccounted for in the confusion as hundreds of inmates were bused to hospitals and others were taken to nearby jails because the crippled building had to be evacuated, Escambia County spokeswoman Kathleen Castro said.
One inmate described the blast.
“The explosion shook us so hard it was like we were in an earthquake,” Monique Barnes, an inmate who said she was knocked off her fourth-floor bunk, told The Associated Press by phone. “It was like a movie, a horrible, horrible movie.”
Pieces of glass and brick were strewn about on the ground outside the jail and the front of the building appeared bowed, with cracks throughout.
Barnes, who spoke to the 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.
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan wouldn’t comment on whether inmates complained about gas. He said three inmates were unaccounted for and the jail was almost completely destroyed.
Pensacola was soaked by record-setting rains this week. Parts of the jail had flooded and it was running on generator power at the time of the blast. Barnes said the toilets weren’t working, so inmates had to use plastic trash bags.
Officials said it was unclear if the weather had anything to do with the explosion. The fire marshal would ultimately determine the cause of the blast, County spokeswoman Kathleen Castro said.
Authorities blocked off roads leading to the detention center and relatives and attorneys for the inmates stood behind police tape, trying to figure out where loved ones had been taken and who was injured and killed. Many family members were angry because they said they were left in the dark.
About 600 inmates – 200 men and 400 women – were in the building at the time of the explosion. Barnes said during the evacuation, hundreds of inmates and corrections officers had to use one stairwell, “everyone pushing and bleeding.”
County spokesman Bill Pearson said 184 people were taken to hospitals and only two inmates and one corrections officer were still there Thursday afternoon. Pearson wouldn’t describe the extent of their injuries.
The sheriff earlier said a corrections officer was seriously injured.
The names of the two inmates killed weren’t immediately released.
Defense attorney Gene Mitchell stood behind the police tape Thursday, 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.
By midday Thursday, there were dozens of firefighters in hard hats going in and out of the building.
At one point during the sheriff’s news conference, a woman interrupted, saying her son was in the jail. Sheila Travis demanded to know what happened to her son. She said she had called hospitals and couldn’t get any information.
“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.
The sheriff told her the county had taken over jail operations last year, and directed her questions to them.
The county took control of the jail and its 400 employees from the sheriff’s office Oct. 1 after a five-year federal investigation of the facility. According to the Pensacola News Journal, the investigation found that inadequate management of the jail had led to violations of the inmates’ rights.
Problems included a low number of guards overseeing the inmates, which led to high levels of violence among the inmates, inadequate mental health care and a decades-long practice of segregating inmates by race. Morgan has been sheriff, an elected position, since 2009.