By Michael Pearson, John Murgatroyd and Ed Lavandera, PENSACOLA, Florida (CNN) — Three inmates are missing and two are known dead following a powerful explosion that ripped through the Escambia County Jail in Florida’s Panhandle, Sheriff David Morgan said Thursday.
The inmates could be dead inside the jail or they might have escaped in the chaos following the blast, Morgan said.
Deputies can’t get far enough inside the structurally-unsound building to look for the inmates in the wake of what may have been a natural gas explosion late Wednesday night, he said.
“It’s pretty much complete destruction inside this facility. It was a huge explosion,” he said.
Morgan’s statement 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 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.
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.