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Two inmates dead in suspected gas explosion at Florida jail

By Eric M. Johnson

(Reuters) - An apparent gas explosion demolished a part of a jail in northwest Florida, killing two inmates and injuring some 150 people, 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 remained unaccounted for but officials believed they were receiving treatment at one of the area hospitals, said Sarah Rachfal, a country spokesperson.

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 151 people were transported with non-life threatening injuries, at least one of them a corrections officer. 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 where officials were scrambling to get people out of the building, provide medical care, and working to make sure inmates were detained and routed to other facilities.

The facility holds about 400 men and 200 women. Injured prisoners were being transported to the hospital, with those uninjured being sent to other 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 and Nick Zieminski)

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