Just over a week after an explosion at the Escambia County Jail’s central booking facility, the building is back under county control as the investigation is continues.
The state Fire Marshal’s Office returned the jail to the County Commission on Thursday, after leading the investigation into the blast which killed two inmates and injured 184 others. The initial report did not raise any eyebrows.
“Our investigation into the Escambia County Jail has determined that the explosion at the jail was the result of a natural gas release into the facility,” said Chris Cate at the Fire Marshal’s Office.
He says they’re continuing to work with the ATF and State Attorney’s Office about the events leading up to the explosion. State Attorney Bill Eddins assigned a prosecutor and investigator to the case. He says if warranted, criminal negligence charges could emerge. Under Florida law, Eddins says a negligent act resulting in a death could, under certain circumstances, trigger an additional charge of manslaughter.
The Fire Marshal’s completion of its work at the jail was announced in a letter delivered to Commission Chairman Lumon May, and County Attorney Allison Rogers.
In the letter, state Arson Investigator Joe Steadman said the damage to the building was so great that investigators are no longer allowed to enter it. He urged the commission to take steps towards keeping people out -- unless and until such time that a qualified professional deems it safe to enter.
A fence is being set up around the jail, which is guarded by Escambia County deputies. It’s not known yet if the building is a total loss. Commissioner Grover Robinson says any new jail needs to be in a more suitable location – somewhere that doesn’t flood as easily.
“We got placed into that location by past boards, by past decisions that even go back before it was a jail when it was a hospital,” Robinson said. “I don’t see any way how we can be in that location, knowing it floods, it’s flooded repeatedly.”
For hours after the blast, the families of the inmates could not get information on their loved ones’ conditions. Many expressed frustration. The Commission addressed that during Thursday’s workshop meeting, with Chairman Lumon May issuing an apology.
“I wish information could have gotten to them sooner or quicker, and we had protocol to follow,” said May. “But it doesn’t take away the anxiety and hurt that that parents have.”
May instructed Corrections Director Gordon Pike to ensure that inmates hurt in the blast get needed medical care.
County Attorney Alison Rogers says her office has already begun receiving calls from counsel representing the families of blast victims. Rogers also told the county commission to expect what she calls “civil litigation at the least,” and that the commissioners should go mum on the case.