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Two inmates killed in Florida jail explosion

By Eric M. Johnson

(Reuters) - A powerful explosion, possibly from a gas leak, demolished part of a northwest Florida jail, killing two inmates and injuring some 150 others, officials said on Thursday.

The blast late on Wednesday partially leveled the four-story Escambia County Jail's central booking facility in Pensacola, which held roughly 600 inmates, county spokeswoman Kathleen Castro said.

"The building is still standing, it's just unstable and partially collapsed," Castro said, describing the incident as an "apparent gas explosion."

"We have reports people heard an explosion and smelled gas. There was no fire," she said, adding that the blast may have been related to severe storms that have hit the southern United States, damaging buildings and infrastructure.

"The facility did receive extensive flooding as a result of the rains yesterday," Castro said. Flooding, she said, "would seem to be a causal relationship, but we can't be sure."

Three inmates initially reported as unaccounted for were later found, said Sarah Rachfal, a county spokesperson. The three were under authorities' control the entire time, she said, but could not be immediately located as officials grappled with transporting hundreds of other inmates to area hospitals or nearby jails.

The state fire marshal and agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were investigating at the scene, Castro said.

Calls to four area hospitals showed that 151 people - at least one a corrections officer - had been taken there with non-life threatening injuries. Roughly 80 had been treated and released by Thursday morning.

A statement on the Escambia County website made no mention of gas, saying only it was an "apparent explosion" after earlier reporting it was "an apparent gas explosion".

Castro described a frantic scene with officials scrambling to get people out of the building, provide medical care, and make sure inmates were detained and rerouted to other facilities.

The jail holds about 400 men and 200 women. Injured prisoners were being transported to hospitals, with others sent to detention centers in Escambia County and neighboring Santa Rosa County, Castro said.

About 100 inmates were being transferred to the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office jail, though the exact number was not known, office spokesman Rich Aloy said.

(Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner in New York and Kevin Gray in Miami; Editing by Alison Williams, Nick Zieminski and Gunna Dickson)

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