All 600 inmates have been accounted for after an explosion that wrecked a four-story jail in Pensacola, Fla., killing two inmates and injuring 184 people.
Two inmates and one staff member remained hospitalized Thursday afternoon. Their conditions were not released by officials. The vast majority of those hurt suffered only minor injuries.
The blast came after torrential rain lashed the Florida Panhandle this week, dumping about 26 inches in Pensacola. The kitchen and laundry of the jail flooded and the facility had been forced to rely on a generator for power.
The force of the explosion rattled buildings up to three miles away, officials said. Broadcast images showed the facility littered with shards of glass and brick. The front of the building appeared bent inward, and cracks were visible.
In the minutes following the blast, officials scrambled to evacuate inmates from the Escambia County Central Booking and Detention Center: 400 men on the second and third floors and 200 women on the fourth.
Police officers and first responders moved inmates onto school buses to be taken to other facilities. The men were relocated within the same county while the female inmates were taken to Santa Rosa County Jail, said Escambia County spokeswoman Kathleen Castro.
Search and rescue crews found two bodies in the damaged facility, Castro said. The victims' names won’t be released until the state fire marshal declares the building stable enough to return inside to retrieve the bodies.
One of the female inmates told the Associated Press by phone from her new jail that she thought an earthquake had struck when she was knocked off her bunk.
“It was like a movie, a horrible, horrible movie,” Monique Barnes said.
Barnes said that the inmates and officers had to rush out through a single stairwell and that “everyone” was “pushing and bleeding.”
The state fire marshal and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives planned to investigate the cause of the explosion, which didn’t trigger a fire.
"This both a significant and horrific event," Jeff Atwater, the fire marshal, said at a televised afternoon news conference. Officials said the investigation likely would last at least five days.
Inmates reported after the explosion that they had complained about the smell of gas. But Castro and other officials said the jail had no record of inmates reporting gas smells until after the fact.
"It would be logical that that will be a key element of the investigation ... whether there was a gas leak," said Chief Joseph Steadman of the state fire marshal's office. "It will be a slow and methodical process. There has been significant structural damage, and we don't want to risk any further injury."
Tyler Gonzalez told the Los Angeles Times that he was working at Krystal, an eatery across from the jail.
“I heard a boom. I thought someone had hit the building,” he said of the 11 p.m. explosion. He added 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.
The jail is not run by the sheriff, but by the county's chief financial officer. The switchover took place last October in the wake of a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found that deputies “routinely violated the constitutional rights of prisoners.” The inmates endured an unnecessarily heightened risk of assault by fellow inmates, poor mental health services and racial segregation, the investigation found.
As of last April, Escambia County’s jail system housed 1,300 inmates. The population was 65% black and 35% white.
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