PENSACOLA, Fla. — Two people were killed and scores injured Wednesday night, when "an apparent gas explosion" demolished a portion of the Escambia County Central Booking and Detention Center in northwestern Florida.
The blast, which occurred around 11 p.m., rattled houses up to three miles away and forced county officials to evacuate some 600 prisoners.
Droves of police officers and first responders roamed the area in the wee hours of Thursday morning, coralling prisoners into school buses so they could be transported to other detention facilities. Emergency personnel from as far away as Orange Beach, Ala., responded to the scene.
Kathleen Dough-Castro, chief public information officer for the county, said male prisoners were being transported to detention facilities across Escambia County. About 200 female prisoners also were taken to the Santa Rosa County Jail, she said.
The total number of injured had not been determined by early Thursday. However, Castro placed the number at more than 100. Dozens of people — both inmates and corrections officers — were taken out of the jail on stretchers and transported to area hospitals under police guard.
Family members gathered at Towne and Country Plaza early Thursday morning, awaiting word on loved ones who were in Escambia County Jail when a gas leak caused an explosion. Very little information was given to them, and emotions ran high.
Sacred Heart Hospital spokesman Mike Burke said Thursday that 31 people had been admitted to the hospital, all with non life-threatening injuries. Eighty-one victims were also being treated at Baptist Hospital facilities - 50 in Pensacola and 31 in Gulf Breeze, a spokeswoman said Thursday morning. Meanwhile, 37 patients were being treated for "minor injuries" at West Florida Hospital, spokesman Kendrick Doidge said.
By 2 a.m., search and rescue crews had accounted for all jail personnel and all but two prisoners, Escambia County Fire Chief Steve Booth said. The chief said that two unidentified inmates had also been confirmed dead.
The cause of the explosion was being investigated by the Escambia County Fire Marshal and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and had not yet been determined Thursday morning. Castro called it an "apparent gas explosion," but said no further information was available.
Several bystanders reported speaking with family members inside the jail, who had complained of a strong odor of gas as late as 90 minutes before the explosion. One woman said a friend inside the facility told her the county was using temporary generators to cope with power outages from the recent storm. He suspected them as the source of the odors.
Castro declined to comment on those complaints. She said the jail had suffered some flooding during the preceding two days' severe weather but added that it was not known whether that flooding had contributed in any way to the blast.
"It took heavy flooding today," Castro said, "but we're not sure if that affected what happened here tonight."
By midnight, the streets around the facility had been cordoned off, and dozens of bystanders had gathered at the scene.
Debra Griffin said she was frustrated by the lack of communication. Griffin's son, nephew and daughter-in-law were housed in the facility. She left her job at a nearby adult care center when she heard about the explosion in the hope of learning if her loved ones were safe.
"All I wanted to do was see my little ones," she said. Instead, she saw people being carried away on stretchers and in body bags.
More than 100 friends and family members of inmates gathered early Thursday at the nearby Piccadilly restaurant, where law enforcement and other officials told them a news conference was to take place. But emotions ran high as people's questions went unanswered.
"I've been here for three hours," said Lawrence Black, who was waiting to hear if his son, Ashton, an inmate at the jail, was OK. "This is terrible. I don't know how to feel right now. And I'm just wondering why they're being so secretive."
Fueling the frustration were the rumors of gas odors before the blast.
"It's sad when you have this kind of situation," said Cheryl Dale. "I heard that they could smell the fumes. They should have been moved somewhere safe. They had fumes making them sick all day."
Pensacola resident Mary Norris had two sons — one 28-year-old and one 29-year-old — in the jail at the time of the explosion.
"From the moment I heard about it, I left as quick as I could from my house and made it here, and I've been here ever since," Norris said. "There isn't much to tell because we haven't had any information yet. Just a lot of speculation is all I'm hearing, and I don't go on that.
Castro said families would be notified once authorities had had time to evacuate the facility and get medical care to those who were injured.
"The first process is making sure that we have everyone, that we know where they are, and then we'll begin informing family members," she said.