Eric Stevenson has been busy since the early hours of Wednesday, April 30. The criminal defense attorney has been trying to help his clients who were caught in the explosion at the Escambia County Central Booking and Detention Center (CBD).
While Escambia and Santa Rosa counties were rescuing families from the heavy rains and flooding from the previous night, the CBD was rocked by a blast, reportedly caused by a gas leak, around 11 p.m. on Wednesday. Two inmates died, one guard was left paralyzed and nearly 200 other inmates and guards were injured as floors and walls collapsed.
In a press conference the following afternoon, Director of Corrections Gordon Pike said that all 600 inmates had been accounted for. He said that the basement of the jail had only taken in 26 inches of water.
County Public Information Officer Bill Pearson dismissed the rumors that the inmates had complained about a natural gas leak hours and days before the explosion. “From everything that we’ve been told—we’ve actually gone through our 9-1-1 calls, we did not receive any calls about a gas leak before the explosion took place.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has taken over the investigation of the explosion. The agency will determine how the blast occurred and whether any criminal charges should be filed.
Several of Stevenson’s clients and their families look forward to the results of the ATF investigation. They have told the attorney a story of the event that differs from what county staff has been saying.
“My clients have told me about smelling gas,” shared Stevenson over coffee at Scenic 90 Diner. “Most of them had headaches. Most of them were feeling sleepy. Five said that they
smelled it a week or two in advance.”
Rodriguez Smith, a trustee housed on the second floor, told Stevenson that the power went out about 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
“Everybody woke up because it was hot,” the attorney said. “The A/C wasn’t running. And they started smelling gas. He said it wasn’t exhaust fumes from any generator, but he didn’t know if it was propane or natural gas. It was a rotten egg smell.”
According to Smith, the inmates complained of headaches and they were getting tired. Some put wet towels on their faces. The toilets weren’t working so they were urinating and defecating into garbage bags. The trustees gathered the bags and threw them out on the play yard. The place reeked of feces and urine. They got two sets of sandwiches in a 24-hour period. The meat was rotten, Smith said.
When the flooding started, Smith was sent with a group of trustees to the kitchen area in the basement. They were ordered to gather bread and other food items. The smell of gas was very strong, according to Smith.
“There was still electricity down there, probably backup generators,” Stevenson said his client told him. “The water was rising. It started about ankle deep but quickly was up to mid-thigh.”
Smith didn’t feel comfortable with the gas smell, electricity being on, and the water rising. Stevenson said, “They ‘bucked’ the corrections officer and said they weren’t going to stay down there anymore.”
The explosion that night threw him from his bed to the floor. Most of the beds were bolted to the floor. The explosion was so hard that the some of the beds turned over.
Stevenson said, “He described seeing ‘rocks from out of the floor.’ The explosion was so big that the concrete was blowing up into pieces. There was a big hole in the middle of the floor.
An inmate fell into it and they pulled him out. A detention officer ran out of there. Another officer was thrown from his work station and dazed. The inmates helped get him out.”
The prisoners all exited through a hole in the wall on the first floor. Smith said that he went back several times to help other inmates, even though correction officers were telling him that he was disobeying orders.
Smith ended up in the main jail in a holding cell with other inmates. “They stayed for eight hours and then they were walked around and put into another holding tank,” said Stevenson, due to a regulation that placed limits on how long an inmate can stay in a holding cell. “He was put on a floor where he slept on a cold steel floor for at least one night. His leg is injured.
He is limping badly. I’ve got to get him more medical attention.”
Stevenson put the Independent News in contact with the parents of Taylor Rhodes, another client. Their tale was very disturbing.
The Taylors live in California. In the hours after the blast, they desperately tried to find out what had happened to their 20-year-old son. They called the county hotline for hours. When they got through, they were told Taylor was fine.
His father Lewis Rhodes was told, “He’s not on the list. It’s my understanding that he was already evacuated. He was unharmed and not even in the blast area. We have him in custody in the main jail.”
Tracy Rhodes wanted to hear her son’s voice. “We hadn’t heard anything. Early, early Friday morning I called down to the main jail and I threatened that if I didn’t hear from my son within the hour there was going to be a lawyer at the front desk.”
Crying she relayed to the Independent News what her son told her when he finally called back. “He told me that (Wednesday, April 30) the gas smell was really bad and everybody was getting sick up there. They had been complaining all day.”
According to Rhodes, a corrections officer took the ones that were really sick down to a holding cell around 9:30 p.m. They were sitting there, when “the floor blew up.”
The mother said, “When he came to, he said, ‘Mama, I thought about just laying there.’ His instinct told him to get up. He looked around, pulled stuff off one guy, and helped another. He looked back and where they were sitting, the wall was gone. “
Rhodes looked for two other inmates, but he couldn’t find them. He told his mother, “Mama, there was nothing I could do.”
The inmates climbed over beams and rubble and found an opening. A guard told them to stay there, but they didn’t listen and climbed out of the building. He was placed in one of the first ambulances that went to the hospital.
Rhodes has been reluctant to tell his parents how badly he was injured. His fiancée has told them that he has a “big gash in his head, full of stitches up and down his arm and on his palm.”
What angered the Rhodes was they received a phone call from the county less than an hour after speaking with their son.
“This woman calls and says that he wasn’t in the blast,” she said. “Taylor had already been evacuated from the jail and was being processed. He was fine and in the main jail.”
Tracy Rhodes said, “ She did not tell me that he was in the infirmary.”
The Rhodes cannot afford to come to Pensacola, but they are worried about the safety of their son. They fear retaliation for talking about the blast and Taylor’s injuries.
“Somebody wants to keep the truth from getting out,” the mother said.
Hurting the most
There will be lawsuits. Too many people, both guards and inmates, were hurt to avoid litigation. Stevenson will be one of the attorneys filing claims on behalf of his clients.
“What you have to do in these types of cases is take someone who has committed a crime and society deems them undesirable and show that they are vulnerable in this position,” said Stevenson.
He said that the hardened criminals were not held in the CBD, but still some see his clients as thugs carrying guns.
“When they are in jail, they are not,” he said. “They are in a jumpsuit and sandals. They have no privacy and are completely dependent on their jailers to provide their sustenance and safe housing.”
He added, “These people are about as unprotected as a person gets.”