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Grand Jury Will Hear Testimony On April Jail Explosion

Photo via Twitter// @weartv

Beginning Tuesday, an Escambia County grand jury will review evidence from the April 30 explosion at the County Jail’s Central Booking and Detention Facility.

Two inmates were killed and 184 other inmates and staff were injured in the blast, which came as the facility was flooded from torrential rainfall. The subsequent investigation by the state Fire Marshal’s Office turned up no real surprises, that the explosion was the result of a natural gas leak in the basement.

Bill Eddins, the State Attorney for the First Judicial Circuit, is calling for the grand jury to be seated because of the magnitude of the explosion. At issue, is whether it was a crime or it was a tragic accident.

“And the significant economic impact that it’s going to have on Escambia County for many, many years,” said Eddins, “As well as the particular facts and circumstances that had been uncovered during our investigation, that it would be most appropriate to present this matter to a grand jury.”

A state grand jury is selected in the same manner as a jury for a regular criminal or civil case. A judge will select the 21 jurors, and in order to deliberate there must be a quorum of at least 15. If warranted, criminal negligence charges could emerge.

“That’s called ‘gross negligence’ and basically, in order for criminal negligence to be present, you have to establish facts that basically demonstrate that someone failed to act, and in their failure to act was very reckless,” said Eddins.

To charge someone in connection to the blast, at least 12 of the grand jurors must vote in favor. While the proceeding is scheduled to begin on Tuesday, there’s no set time frame for how long the grand jury will meet.

A number of state and local agencies are expected to testify or present evidence in relation to the jail explosion, including those leading the investigation -- The state Fire Marshal; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the State Attorney’s Office.

Escambia County officials could present a report by attorney Edward Fleming, which claims no culpable negligence by jail staff. The report says the blast was likely caused when dryers in the basement were detached from their gas lines when floated up by rising flood water. Fleming also reported that nobody interviewed smelled gas prior to the explosion – a contention disputed by Eddins last May.

“There is evidence that individuals smelled gas inside the jail before the explosion,” Eddins said.

Meanwhile, the cost of building a temporary facility to house inmates is estimated at between $17 million and $24 million. Combining the facility with the main jail campus, as has been discussed by the County Commission, could run as high as $161 million.