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No criminal charges to be brought after fatal Florida jail explosion

21 November 2014

A grand jury in Miami has concluded that there was not enough evidence to bring criminal charges over the April 30 explosion at a Florida jail that killed two inmates and seriously injured a guard. More than 180 others were injured in the blast, which was caused by a spark from an unknown source that ignited natural gas, according to a report by the State Attorney's Office.

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Public allegations that jail occupants reported smelling gas hours or days before the explosion prompted the Attorney's Office to seek a grand jury opinion on whether criminal negligence played a role in the blast.

The jury's overall finding was that the explosion was caused by gas that built up in the jail's flooded basement after clothes dryers were pushed upward by intruding floodwater and detached from their gas pipes.

The determination that gross negligence was not at play in the blast mirrored the conclusion of an independent report funded by the county and the Attorney's Office report.

"Based on our own review of the reports outside, separate and away from the grand jury, we came to the same conclusions and will take no further action in the matter," State Attorney Bill Eddins said.

The explosion destroyed much of the jail's bottom floor on a day after torrential rain left two feet of water in the building's basement. A flood in June 2012 had already damaged the basement area of the Central Booking and Detention facility, which housed the kitchen and laundry facilities along with boilers and electrical equipment.

The grand jury noted that commissioners decided to rebuild the basement the same as it was prior to the 2012 flood, rather than put the equipment on the first floor away from possible water damage. But it concluded that criminal charges were not appropriate, and issued a number of recommendations for Escambia County officials as they rebuild the jail in Pensacola.

The first of these was for supervision of the facility to be returned from county commissioners to the Escambia County sheriff. During the 2012 flood, when the facility was still under the sheriff’s jurisdiction, jail staff turned off the main gas line to the facility. That step was not taken during the April 2014 flood when the facility was the responsibility of county commissioners.

Sheriff David Morgan relinquished control of the jail to the county in October 2013 after the Board of County Commissioners refused to approve a substantial budget increase that Morgan said was necessary to bring the jail up to US Department of Justice Standards.

They also recommended that the new jail should not be built on the same site. According to the Pensacola News Journal, Escambia County is in the process of vetting 10 properties as potential homes for a new jail facility.

Other recommendations were that Pensacola Energy install safeguards that could protect staff in a future emergency, including gas cut-off valves outside flood-prone locations, and that the county review its stormwater control measures to prevent similar flooding of county facilities in the future.

In all, the April flooding caused an estimated $90 million in damage to the county's infrastructure and facilities.

In addition to finding insufficient evidence to bring charges, the grand jury of 21 Escambia County citizens commended the corrections officer and staff for "the outstanding job they did under the most difficult of circumstances caused by the flood and explosion."

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