A victim of the explosion at the Escambia County Central Booking and Detention Facility is loaded into an ambulance early Wednesday morning. / T.S. Stricklandemail@example.com
PENSACOLA, Fla. - State and federal officials are investigating the cause of an explosion that killed two inmates and injured 184 at a northwest Florida jail.
Three inmates missing in the chaos after the apparent gas explosion late Wednesday at the Escambia County Central Booking and Detention Center here are now accounted for, officials said Thursday.
Two inmates, whose names have not been released, died in the blast at about 11 p.m. CT Wednesday, county Sheriff David Morgan said. They were found in the same area of the jail surrounded with debris.
A total of 184 detainees and corrections officers were injured; two male inmates and a corrections officer remained hospitalized Thursday afternoon, county spokesman Bill Pearson said.
The explosion, which is believed to have originated in a rear laundry room on the first floor, severely damaged a portion of the jail, and the explosion rattled houses up to 3 miles away. County officials had to evacuate about 600 inmates to secure facilities and worked for much of the day with state and federal agencies to account for all who were in the jail at the time of the explosion.
"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 after she was moved.
The first floor of the building is likely irreparably damaged, Morgan said. The jail's basement had flooded during Wednesday's rains, and a retention wall inside the jail compound had collapsed earlier in the day because of flood damage.
As much as 24 hours before the explosion, inmates and corrections officers told family members that they had smelled gas. One woman said a friend inside the facility told her the county was using temporary generators to cope with power outages from the recent storm; he suspected them as the source of the odors.
Morgan said those allegations will be investigated.
No complaints or service calls regarding a natural gas leak were documented in the day leading up to the blast, Pearson said.
Engineers gave the OK for emergency personnel to enter the building Thursday afternoon to recover one body. The second victim remains in the debris until officials can ensure that moving the body won't cause the building to collapse further.
About 200 female inmates were taken to the Santa Rosa County Jail in Milton, Fla. about 25 miles northwest of Pensacola, said Kathleen Dough-Castro, Escambia County's chief public information officer. The other 400 male inmates are scattered around detention facilities in Escambia County.
On Thursday morning, family members were frantic because they could not get information about their relatives.
"They haven't given us any information," said Sarah Sedes, who rushed to the jail with her aunt to see whether her cousin was among the wounded or dead. "No one will even tell us if he's alive."
Corrections officers have been arranging for each inmate to contact family members, Morgan said. And authorities have established a telephone line for people to call for information on a relative's location.
After the blast, droves of police officers and first responders roamed the area in the wee hours of Thursday morning, corralling inmates into school buses so they could be transported to other detention facilities. Emergency personnel from as far as Orange Beach, Ala., 30 miles west, responded to the scene.
Scores of people - both inmates and corrections officers - were taken out of the jail on stretchers and transported to area hospitals under police guard.
By an hour after the explosion, streets around the facility had been cordoned off.
Debra Griffin said then that she was frustrated from the lack of communication. Griffin's son, nephew and daughter-in-law were housed in the facility. She left her job at a nearby adult care center when she heard about the explosion in hopes of learning whether her loved ones were safe.
"All I wanted to do was see my little ones," she said. Instead, she saw people being carried away on stretchers.
Pensacola resident Mary Norris had two sons - one 28-year-old and one 29-year-old - in the jail at the time of the explosion.
"From the moment I heard about it, I left as quick as I could from my house and made it here, and I've been here ever since," she said early Thursday.
The jail has a troubled history. County officials are negotiating a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve the findings of a scathing five-year federal investigation of the facility.
The investigation, which wrapped up in May 2013, determined that inadequate management had led to routine violations of inmates' constitutional rights.
Federal investigators cited problems including a low number of guards watching over many inmates, which contributed to what the report called "appalling" levels of violence, "clearly inadequate" mental health care and a recently discontinued practice of segregating inmates according to race.
Morgan, who was manager of the jail then, told investigators in April that he had put an end to that decades-long practice.
Escambia County officials agreed in June to take over the jail from Morgan and take responsibility for the federal government's findings after weeks of tense debate on how to address the report. The handoff took place seven months ago, on Oct. 1.
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