Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday July 23rd 2019

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Outtakes—Explosive Culture

By Rick Outzen

On April 30, 2014, about a half hour before midnight, the Central Booking and Detention Center (CBD), which housed 595 inmates, exploded. Two inmates housed in holding cell #T-2 on the first floor died. The blast injured approximately 162 inmates and 11 correctional officers, one of which was left paralyzed.

The next afternoon, county officials denied rumors that employees and prisoners had complained of smelling natural gas the day of the blast. Both Inweekly and the News Journal challenged those statements after interviewing dozens of prisoners caught in the explosion.

State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater requested assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The National Response Team obtained all available surveillance video and records. They inspected the building as best they could, considering the instability of the structure. They interviewed employees at the CBD and in facilities maintenance.

Based on the ATF report and direct testimonies, a local grand jury determined the fatal blast was a natural gas explosion sparked in the basement area that had been flooded by unprecedented rainfall. The grand jury returned a No True Bill finding, having determined there was insufficient evidence to establish any criminal charges.

The grand jury reported that there was a spike of natural gas flowing into the building throughout the day and night of April 30. “During this time, both jail staff and inmates reported the smell of gas in the Central Booking and Detention Center,” the grand jury said. “These reports were made to jail supervisors as well as maintenance employees.”

During the summer of 2014, the Escambia County Commission tried to get to the bottom of what caused the explosion. The media and county staff were at odds over the magnitude of the gas leak and whether staff could have prevented the explosion.
The commissioners hired attorney Ed Fleming to interview CBD staff and administrators. He determined that county officials, from the top down, took reasonable precautions against all known risks. Fleming found “no evidence that anyone in the chain of command for the CBD at the time of the explosion was aware of an unresolved gas leak.”

When the ATF report was released, it revealed that the shift commanders who had sworn to Fleming that they had no reason to believe there was a gas leak in the building at any time admitted to ATF investigators that they had smelled gas on April 30.

The public had been told lies, and those misstatements were swept under the rug and forgotten. Five years later, those lies still bother me and what they say about the culture in county government.

The new county administrator, Janice Gilley, will have her hands full changing that culture. Good luck.