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Florida jail explosion caused by natural gas release, investigators say

Justice SystemEnergy ResourcesBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and ExplosivesRobert EarlJeffrey Atwater
Fire marshal: Jail explosion that killed 2 inmates, paralyzed officer in Florida was result of natural gas
Investigation ongoing in Escambia County jail explosion that killed 2 inmates

An explosion that killed two inmates and paralyzed a corrections officer at a Pensacola, Fla., jail was caused by a natural gas release inside the facility, investigators said Friday.

At least 184 people suffered injuries among the more than 600 inmates and officers that were inside Escambia County Jail on April 30, county officials said. Inmates said after the blast they had warned officers about the smell of gas, but authorities have said there were no such reports made.

The state fire marshal's office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating what was known before the late-night blast and whether criminal charges should be filed against jail officials. The jail had also been without water and power, and dealing with basement flooding, because of heavy rainfall.

“The on-scene phase of our investigation may be complete, but there is still much to be learned,” State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater said in a statement Friday. “Our investigators will continue to work day and night with the ATF and the state attorney’s office to uncover all of the answers victims and their families deserve to know.”

Atwater did not say when the investigation would be complete.

The two inmates killed were David Paul Weinstein, 45, who was being held on theft and fraud allegations, and Robert Earl Simmons, 54, who had been facing animal cruelty charges. Corrections officer Chris Hankinson remains hospitalized for multiple injuries, including paralysis from the waist down, his family said.

The blast caved in part of the four-story jailhouse, leaving it unusable. Surviving inmates were transferred to nearby facilities. Some of them told the Pensacola News Journal that the gas smell grew worse after a backup power generator went into use and that the officers didn't seem prepared for the evacuation that followed the explosion.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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