Deaths, injuries in apparent gas explosion at Florida jail

Last Updated May 1, 2014 11:21 AM EDT

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- An apparent gas explosion rocked a jail in the Florida Panhandle, killing two inmates, injuring as many as 150 people, and creating a chaotic scene Thursday after inmates were bused to hospitals and nearby jails when the crippled building had to be evacuated.

The jail was almost completely destroyed, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said at a news conference Thursday morning. Three inmates were unaccounted for, and one corrections officer was seriously injured, he said.

Morgan said the jail's inmates "tend to be non-violent." Twenty agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on their way to help.

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports from Pensacola that witnesses described a chaotic scene as people who were wounded or injured in the blast were loaded into ambulances and buses and the facility was secured.

Firefighters entered the building Thursday morning. Pieces of glass and brick were strewn about on the ground. The front of the building appeared bowed out, with cracks throughout. Authorities blocked off roads leading to the jail.

"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. "It was like a movie, a horrible, horrible movie."

Barnes said she and others in the jail had complained of smelling gas ahead of the blast late Wednesday, and some reported headaches. Toilets weren't working, so they had to use plastic trash bags, Barnes said.

During the evacuation, hundreds of inmates and corrections officers used one stairwell, "everyone pushing and bleeding," she said.

About 600 inmates - 200 men and 400 women - were in the building at the time, county spokesman Kathleen Castro said. Those with injuries were taken to hospitals and the uninjured to jails in neighboring counties, officials said. Castro said authorities did not yet know the extent of injuries, but local hospitals said some with minor issues had already been released.

The Pensacola area was drenched by rains and severely flooded Wednesday as part of a large storm system making its way across the U.S., and Castro said the building was affected. But she said officials did not yet know whether the flooding and explosion were directly related. The generator was running at the time of the blast, but Castro said officials don't believe that was related.

A couple of blocks from the jail, Ellis Robinson and his family awoke to a loud noise sometime after midnight, their home rattling. "It shook the whole house," he said. "I got up, the dog started barking, people were running up there." He spent the night observing the chaos and watching as inmates were loaded into buses.

Investigators were on the scene. Castro said the fire marshal would ultimately determine the cause.

The names of the two inmates killed in the explosion weren't immediately released.

Defense attorney Gene Mitchell stood outside police tape at the jail Thursday morning, reviewing dozens of text messages from clients' relatives wondering what happened to their loved ones.

"I have over 20 clients in there," he said. "I've had dozens of calls. Every other call is a family member wanting to know what has happened to a loved one."

He said he hasn't been able to get much information about the inmates. Castro said officials were having trouble notifying families because it isn't safe to enter the jail to access computers and paper records.

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.