At least two inmates were killed and as many as 150 prisoners and guards were injured when an apparent gas explosion shattered a county jail in the rain-soaked Florida Panhandle, officials said Thursday morning.
The Escambia County Central Booking and Detention Center in Pensacola was almost completely destroyed, Sheriff David Morgan said at an early morning news conference. As many as three inmates remained unaccounted for.
Officials were waiting until the building was declared safe to enter, the sheriff said.
Broadcast images showed the blast site on Leonard Street littered with shards of glass and brick. The front of the building appeared bent inward and cracks were visible.
The blast occurred late Wednesday night. Tyler Gonzalez told the Los Angeles Times that he was working at Krystal, a diner across from the jail.
“I heard a boom. I thought someone had hit the building,” he said.
Gonzalez said he checked his phone shortly after he heard the sound and learned that there had been an explosion at the jail. He said he couldn’t see any fire or flames, adding that the streets around the restaurant seemed open by Thursday morning.
Earlier, many streets in the area had been closed because of flooding after fierce rains hit the Panhandle and Alabama shore in what officials described as a deluge seen once in a generation. Parts of the county’s scenic highway and U.S. 29 were closed, and the rain washed out a bridge on East Johnson Avenue.
Escambia County public information officer Kathleen Dough-Castro told reporters that the jail building had been flooded, but it was unknown what caused the explosion. Fire marshals will investigate reports that some residents smelled gas.
The explosion rattled buildings up to three miles away, officials said.
About 600 prisoners were in the facility late Tuesday night.
The bodies of two inmates have been recovered.
After the explosion, police officers and first responders rushed to area and moved inmates onto school buses to be taken to other facilities. The men were relocated within the county while 200 female inmates were taken to Santa Rosa County Jail, Castro said.
The exact number of injured and their conditions was unclear, but four hospitals reported treating at least 110 inmates and guards for various injuries. A fifth hospital reported treating 30 people for minor injuries.
Defense attorney Gene Mitchell stood outside police tape at the jail Thursday morning reviewing dozens of text messages from clients' relatives wondering what happened to their loved ones.
"I have over 20 clients in there," he told reporters. "I've had dozens of calls. Every other call is a family member wanting to know what has happened to a loved one."