PENSACOLA, Fla. – Criminal negligence charges are possible in a Florida jail explosion case if investigators find authorities failed to evacuate the building after smelling gas, a state attorney overseeing the investigation told The Associated Press.
The April 30 explosion at the Escambia County Jail killed two inmates, paralyzed a detention officer and injured about 200 others.
There were 600 inmates in the jail when the explosion ripped through the bottom floor, a day after heavy rains left two feet of water in the building's basement.
State Attorney Bill Eddins said late Tuesday that criminal negligence charges were a possibility.
"That is an issue that clearly has to be examined," he said.
Eddins said an assistant state attorney and an investigator from his office have been assigned to work with the Florida fire marshal and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as they comb through debris and try to find cause of the blast.
Eddins said the investigation will likely take months and that criminal charges would only be filed if, after careful review, it is found that any jail authority was grossly negligent by not acting to ensure the safety of people in the jail.
Inmates have told the media, attorneys and family members that they smelled gas hours before the explosion. Escambia County denied a request for recordings of phone calls made from the jail by inmates prior to the explosion, saying they are part of the ongoing investigation. The county also denied requests to view surveillance video recorded by the jail before and during the explosion.
The jail was running on generator power at the time of the explosion and one inmate and attorneys have told AP that toilets were broken and prisoners were using plastic bags.
Pensacola attorney Scott Barnes is representing at least one inmate in a planned lawsuit against the county and is soliciting more clients. As a governmental agency, lawsuits against the county are capped at $200,000 per plaintiff, he said.
Barnes said he is working with local churches to find people who were in the jail when it exploded and who want to file a claim.
"Absolutely what I am hearing is that inmates were complaining of smelling gas well before the explosion," he said.
County officials have said there were no 911 calls or any calls placed to the county's dispatch center about the smell of gas coming from the jail. The county has also said that the jail had flooded before and that inmates made it through that flood safely.
Barnes said that inmates couldn't call 911 if they wanted to because they were in jail.
"They were at the mercy of other people who had to make the decisions," he said.