PENSACOLA, Fla. – The jail already had two feet of water in the basement from the record-setting rains when an apparent gas explosion leveled the inside of the building, killing two inmates and injuring more than 180 other people, officials said Thursday.
In the rubble and chaos, inmates were trapped and had to be rescued. Others were treated for their injuries in the parking lot. In all, 600 inmates rushed out of the jail. The injured were taken by bus to hospitals, while the others were sent to nearby jails.
Authorities lost track of three inmates in the confusion, but, by late afternoon, they were confident everyone was accounted for.
Inmate Monique Barnes said she was knocked off her fourth-floor bunk.
“The explosion shook us so hard it was like we were in an earthquake,” Barnes said. “It was like a movie, a horrible, horrible movie.”
Pieces of glass, brick and inmates’ flip-flops were strewn about on the ground outside the jail. The front of the building appeared bowed, with cracks throughout.
Barnes, who spoke to AP after she was taken to another jail, said she and other inmates complained of smelling gas ahead of the blast, and some reported headaches.
County spokesman Bill Pearson said they didn’t receive any 911 calls about gas, nor did they have any reports of an odor.
Investigators said it could take days to determine what caused the explosion. They were having a hard time getting to the epicenter in the back of the building, because there was so much damage.
Joseph Steadman, the head of the state fire and arson bureau, described it as a “collapse of concrete floors between the basement and upper floors.”
He said it was still too early to say if the weather had anything to do with it.
Richard Long, a Colorado-based engineer who owns a construction consulting firm, said flooding could cause a gas leak by moving pipes around. The flooding occurred in the jail’s basement, where the kitchen and laundry were located. No inmates were housed there, officials said.
More than 15 inches of rain fell on Pensacola on Tuesday, the rainiest single day since forecasters started keeping records in 1880. Neighborhoods were flooded, and hundreds of people had to be rescued from homes and cars.
The jail was running on generator power after the flooding. Barnes, the inmate, said the toilets weren’t working, so inmates had to use plastic trash bags.