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Escambia County Jail Explosion: One Year Later

One year ago, as the western Panhandle was dealing with torrential rain and flooding, a ruptured gas line dropped another disaster into Escambia County’s lap.

About 600 inmates and corrections personnel were in the building, when the explosion ripped through the building around 11:00 p.m. on April 30, 2014. Two inmates died, and another 184 inmates and staff were injured. The explosion occurred in a rear laundry room on the first floor, from a ruptured gas line. People as far away as Molino and Gulf Breeze reported feeling or hearing the blast, which caused a partial collapse of the facility.

State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater came to Pensacola to lead the initial investigation.

“The community deserves, and the families and the victims deserve,” said Atwater. “So we will take our time….to do the full investigation and be able to fully report in the end what was the origin of this event.”

Inmates not injured were taken to other county lockups and to jails in neighboring counties – where some remain to this day.

State Attorney Bill Eddins said his office would cooperate, through the assignment of an experienced attorney to what he calls a “very complicated” investigation -- part of which involved inmates and officers claiming to have smelled gas up to 24 hours before the explosion.

An Escambia County grand jury began work in late September, reviewing evidence from the explosion. Last November, after seven weeks of investigation, the panel returned a “no true bill” – that is, not finding probable cause to move forward with criminal charges. The grand jury also returned a half-dozen recommendations for the jail.

“The first recommendation is that the county turn the jail back over to the sheriff,” said Eddins. “We believe that this provides for the most efficient operation of these facilities. The second major recommendation is that the jail not be rebuilt on that location. And the grand jury recommended that a safety officer be appointed for each shift.”

The other three recommendations are: full disclosure of how the county made the decision to rebuild the facility’s basement following the 2012 flood; That Escambia County review its storm water control measures, and that Pensacola Energy review the location of gas cutoff valves, so that they can be re-located outside flood-prone areas.

Earlier this year talks got underway with Omaha, Nebraska-based DLR Group, the firm winning the competition to provide a blueprint to replace both the Central Booking Facility and the aging main County Jail. If no agreement is reached, four other firms are on standby.

Ten potential sites were selected for consideration, with the list narrowed down to the current four: the Escambia Treating Superfund site; vacant property north of the Superfund site, an old concrete plant near the corner of Airport Blvd. and Palafox St., and the McDonald’s shopping center near the current jail.

Most recently, Escambia County Administrator Jack Brown said that a fight may be brewing over part of the insurance on the Central Booking Facility.

“The county had cobbled together $25 million worth of flood insurance coverage, and $45 million worth of all-perils insurance,” said Brown. “They have paid the flood, and the all-perils they have refused to pay. Put it this way: they’ve denied coverage on it.”

While Brown doesn’t feel good about the insurance situation, he adds that they appear to be making some headway with FEMA. But one roadblock is that the feds will wait until the county collects all the insurance money possible.

Meanwhile, around 80 civil lawsuits in connection with the explosion are expected to be filed. Based on his time in private practice, State Attorney Bill Eddins does not expect the grand jury’s decision to have any significant impact on any of them.