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'Complete destruction': 2 die, dozens hurt as explosion shatters Florida jail

By Michael Pearson, John Murgatroyd and Ed Lavandera, CNN
updated 5:02 PM EDT, Thu May 1, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Escambia County Sheriff says all inmates accounted for
  • NEW: Authorities said the explosion killed two inmates
  • The jail will likely be a "total loss," Sheriff David Morgan says
  • The explosion may have been the result of a natural gas leak

Pensacola, Florida (CNN) -- Everyone was accounted for after a powerful explosion ripped through the Escambia County Jail in Florida's Panhandle and killed two inmates, Sheriff David Morgan said Thursday.

Morgan said a "be on the lookout" message was issued after an original head count because officials thought three people were missing. He said authorities conducted a recount and realized all were accounted for.

The building was rocked Wednesday night by what may have been a natural gas explosion, he said. Deputies were having a difficult time searching the structurally unsound building.

"It's pretty much complete destruction inside this facility. It was a huge explosion," he said.

The building sustained flooding damage last week and in this week's recent torrential rains, Morgan said.

But it is unclear if that damage could have contributed to the accident, officials said.

Three still missing after jail blast
Jail building collapses on inmates

Morgan said officials hope to begin exploring the jail soon and provide an update Thursday evening.

Morgan's statements contradicted earlier word from county spokeswoman Kathleen Castro, who told reporters that deputies had made two sweeps through the building.

The explosion in the medium-security facility happened near the jail's booking area, Castro told reporters shortly after the incident.

It appeared the ceiling and part of a wall had collapsed, she said.

About 600 inmates were in the jail at the time, Castro said. Officials with nearby hospitals reported treating 155 patients, most of them with minor injuries. None of the injuries were life-threatening, they said.

The building, however will likely be a total loss, Morgan said Thursday.

It's unclear what caused the explosion, but people in the area reported a strong smell of natural gas before the blast.

The state Fire Marshal's office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating, Morgan said. The federal agency's involvement is routine and doesn't suggest investigators believe the explosion was anything other than an accident, the sheriff added.

Inmates who do not remain in the hospital have been taken to other nearby jails, officials said.

One angry woman who said she had been unable to learn the fate of her son in the jail confronted Morgan Thursday, accusing his deputies and jail staff of being insensitive.

Morgan said officials were doing the best they can.

Another woman told CNN affiliate WALA of her anger over the situation.

"We don't know if they're dead or alive. It's really frustrating," Eva Stewart told the station. "I can't sleep not knowing if my child's OK. I got other family members in there, too. I don't know if they're OK."

Ed Lavandera and John Murgatroyd reported from Pensacola; Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta; CNN's Eric Fiegel and Ed Payne also contributed to this report.

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