Jail explosion: No criminal charges, changes needed

  • November 20, 2014
  • /   Mollye Barrows
  • /   government
Criminal charges are “not appropriate” according to an Escambia County grand jury that reviewed the deadly natural gas explosion at the jail that killed two inmates, paralyzed a corrections officer, and injured nearly 200 others. But the grand jurors do recommend changes to avoid a similar incident, including returning the jail to the supervision of the sheriff, not rebuilding the damaged facility in the same location, and improved emergency reporting and response procedures. [sidebar] Finding a home for the new jail Escambia County officials are considering 10 possible sites for a new jail. And the current location is on the list of possibilities. Read that story here. [/sidebar] The blast at the Central Booking and Detention Center on April 30 followed an epic rainstorm. Grand jurors returned a “no true bill”, which means they did not find probable cause that a crime had been committed. “In this case, I agree with that,” State Attorney Bill Eddins said. Eddins said his office also reviewed the same evidence and found that a combination of circumstances resulted in the explosion. “A lot of people were involved in the decision-making,” Eddins said. “It was not isolated to one person. That was a factor in our investigation. Nobody, in our opinion, did it on purpose.” Grand jurors made six recommendations based on their review. The first: Return the jail and the detention center to the supervision of the Escambia Sheriff. Last year, Escambia County Commissioners voted to transfer the jail away from the sheriff. They balked at the millions of dollars Sheriff David Morgan said he needed to improve conditions at the jail, after a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice, and decided the county could run it more efficiently. Morgan has received the report and is assessing it, but is not commenting at this time. We talked to him about the explosion earlier this summer. “The jail wouldn’t have blown up on my watch,” Morgan told us in the interview. “In 2012 when it flooded the jail we asked them not to rebuild and we had a gas leak where the dryers disconnected in the basement.” ‘Everything became orange’ That’s exactly what investigators say caused the deadly explosion in April of this year. Torrential rains once again flooded the jail, knocking out power and flooding the basement. Surveillance video shows the clothes dryers pulling away from the wall and floating in the water shortly after 2 a.m. on April 30. “At about the same time,” the grand jury report reads, “natural gas records indicate a substantial spike in the amount of natural gas flowing into the Central Booking and Detention Center.” Around 11 p.m. that night, a spark from an unknown source ignited the gas, causing the explosion. Taylor Rhodes was in the holding area where two inmates were killed when the blast happened, a place inmates call “the tank,” where some are taken away from general population. “Right when it happened I remember everything becoming orange,” Rhodes said. “There was dust everywhere; it was hard to breathe. I remember the guy sitting next to me. Concrete was all over his body. The only thing I saw was his hip, concrete covered everything else.” Rhodes said an inmate who was killed was standing near the door when the blast happened. “That’s where the floor was missing,” Rhodes said. “When you walked to the front of the tank, you could see the bottom of the basement. You could see the water. I never saw him after the explosion.” Rebuild elsewhere, other recommendations The grand jury also recommended no future jail facility be built in the same location and questioned why the basement area was rebuilt after severe flooding caused similar problems in April of 2012. In fact, they recommend the county fully disclose how that decision was made. “It appears from the recommendation they expect the county would make a good-faith effort to gather the information requested and make it public regarding the decision to rebuild,” Eddins said. “I’m assuming the county will provide that information to us.” Morgan made similar recommendations after the 2012 incident. The basement flooded, causing the dryers to disconnect, and creating a gas leak. When maintenance didn’t immediately respond, Morgan said they called Pensacola Energy, the natural gas supplier. “It took them about eight or nine hours to respond because they were responding to other things in the county,” Morgan said. “They came out and shut off the gas so we didn’t have an explosion.” In fact, the county was taking steps to mitigate flooding at the jail after the 2012 flood, when last April’s rains came. That included a partial wall and berm to block floodwaters and two pumps to remove it from the back of the building. The pumps were in, but weren’t installed and the berm wasn’t completed yet. The grand jury also found jail employees “believed they were limited in making emergency reports to supervisors.” Inmates and staff complained of the detention facility smelled of gas before the explosion and reported it to supervisors and maintenance, but the report found “at no time was Pensacola Energy ever contacted about the gas smell.” Pensacola Energy crews were in the area when they heard the explosion and responded. They couldn’t immediately get to the cut-off valves because they were under water. They ended up accessing the main gas line from the street and sealing it. Grand jurors said there needs to be a review of cut-off valves so they’re not in flood-prone areas, as well as gas leak detection devices in county buildings. They’re also recommending Escambia County review its stormwater control measures, emergency procedures and appoint a safety officer for each shift at the jail. “Their job would specifically require that he or she report any emergency situation to the appropriate authorities,” the report stated. Calls to incoming Commission Chairman Steve Barry for comment have not yet been returned, as he is out of town. The families of the two inmates who were killed — 45-year-old David Weinstein and 54-year-old Robert Simmons — have hired attorneys to review their cases, as well as the corrections officer who was paralyzed. Others who were there that night, like Taylor Rhodes, say the explosion left them with lasting health and mental issues. “I had a concussion. I have headaches. Loud, abrupt noises scare me,” Rhodes said. “That never happened before.” DOWNLOAD: Grand Jury - Esc Co Jail Explosion - Press Release