Fire Marshal, ATF Main Players in Jail Blast Probe
With 600 inmates securely housed at other detention facilities in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties, the attention now turns to what caused Wednesday night’s explosion at the Escambia County Jail.
It was, by all standards, a major logistical feat – evacuating the jail, rescuing inmates trapped in the rubble, transporting the 184 injured to area hospitals and the rest to other lockups.
What may have helped matters was that the Escambia County Emergency Operations Center was already activated for Tuesday’s storms and flooding. Mike Weaver is Public Safety Director.
“We’ve been at a Level-2 since that time,” said Escambia County Safety Director Mike Weaver, “and basically that is every emergency support function has been manned 24 hours a day since that flooding event occurred.”
Two inmates -- 45-year-old David Paul Weinstein and 54-year-old Robert Earl Simmons -- were killed in the blast, which occurred in the rear of the building. Court records show Weinstein was charged with fraud and theft, while Simmons faced animal abuse charges. Three others remain hospitalized, and county spokesman Bill Pearson says no information on them will be forthcoming because of the federal HIPA law, which limits patient information.
Kathleen Castro, the county’s chief public information officer, says they cannot confirm another media report that one inmate had gone into labor during the evacuation, because of the same HIPA regulations.
Jeff Atwater, who is Florida’s Chief Financial Officer and also wears the hat of Fire Marshal, is leading the investigation. Joining him is Joe Steadman, who heads the state Arson Investigation Bureau.
“There has been a collapse of the concrete floors between the basement and the upper floors,” said Steadman. “As well as some damage to structural support members inside of the building. At this point we’ve found no evidence of a fire following the initial incident.”
Some officials say the five-story facility is likely a total loss. Early reports say a gas leak may be the cause, but Steadman says it’s too early to tell.
County spokesman Bill Pearson had no comment on an Associated Press report, that quoted one jail inmate as saying she and others had complained of smelling gas and suffering headaches before the explosion.
Pensacola Energy has verified that the gas main leading to the building is operating in a safe and effective manner.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has up to 18 special agents on-scene at the request of the state Fire Marshal’s Office. They specialize in post-blast, and fire origin-and-cause investigating.
Another part of the inquiry will be to determine if the explosion could possibly be linked to criminal activity. State Attorney Bill Eddins says his office will cooperate through the assignment of an experienced attorney to what he calls a “very complicated” investigation.
“There is going to be an unbelievable number of witnesses, unbelievable amount of forensic evidence to be evaluated,” said Eddins. “I think the general public should know and understand that it will be a lengthy time before the questions have been answered exactly as to what happened. “
One of those questions is whether the stormy weather and resultant flooding was a factor. Before the explosion on Wednesday, there were two feet of water in the jail’s basement, and the facility was on generator power.