Investigation Begins Into Jail Explosion
Inmates from the Escambia County Jail are scattered around detention facilities and hospitals in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties after Wednesday night’s explosion at the lockup. The blast is believed to have originated in a rear laundry room on the first floor, according to officials.
Two inmates died in the explosion: David Paul Weinstein, 45, and Robert Earl Simmons, 54. One hundred-84 inmates and jail staff were taken to five area hospitals; three remain hospitalized. Some officials say the five-story facility, which housed about 600 inmates, is likely a total loss. Early reports say a gas leak may be the cause, but authorities say it’s too early to tell.
State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater is leading the investigation.
“The community deserves and the families of the victims deserve the answer,” said Atwater. “So we will take our time, in a facility that’s clear right now (and) has been significantly damaged, to do the full investigation and be able to fully report in the end what was the origin and cause of this event.”
Atwater says the slow, deliberate pace the investigation will take also ensures the safety of crews going in and out of the facility, including agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives using high-tech equipment.
There were initial reports that three other inmates were missing, but Corrections Director Gordon Pike cleared that up.
“All inmates have been accounted for,” Pike said. “We didn’t make any statements until we had a complete count on all the inmates. And all of them have been accounted for.”
It’s also not known if the extensive flooding from Tuesday’s severe storms was a factor. Pike says they were there on Wednesday inspecting flood damage – including two feet of water in the basement -- from this week’s storms. The jail was also running on generator power.
Mike Weaver, Escambia County’s Public Safety Director, says first responders began evacuating the jail shortly after the explosion, along with performing rapid triage on the injured.
“And during that time….they were able to rescue some people who were trapped, as well as treat the victims in about two and a half hours,” said Weaver.
People as far away as Molino and Gulf Breeze reported feeling or hearing the blast, which caused a partial collapse of the facility. Roads leading to the jail are blocked off.
Escambia County took control of the jail and its 400 employees from the sheriff's office last October 1st, after a five-year federal investigation of the facility. Sheriff David Morgan says his agency will provide support for the overall investigation, while focusing on the two inmate deaths.
Morgan and other officials 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.