Station Pride Articles

Seminole County, FL Jail Fire, June 9, 1975

11 die in Florida prison fire

SANFORD , Fla . ( AP )—Eleven persons, most of them inmates trapped behind bars and screaming for help , died Monday when smoke from a smoldering fire swept the Seminole County Jail, officials said . At least 34 others were injured and admitted to area hospitals. It was like somebody was strangling me , said one inmate . I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t see. I didn’t think we were going to get out. And then I felt someone grab me. I couldn’t believe it . One of the first persons on the scene, Bill Reck, quoted workers in the county courthouse next door as saying that desperate prisoners banged on the walls to call attention to their plight . The smoke was terrible, terrible , said Sanford fire chief George Harriett, who led firemen up to the jail’s second floor/where inmates were trapped in locked cells. If you didn’t have a gas mask you couldn’t survive up there. Capt. J . Q . Galloway, jail shift commander at the time, said without elaboration, There are certain earmarks that point toward arson. He said state fire marshals were investigating. Harriett said the blaze started in a mattress in a hospital cell at the two-story central Florida jail, about 40 miles from Disney World. The heat spread it to a stack of other mattresses , and then it caught some papers and books on fire in an adjoining classroom, he said, The fire was small and contained, Harriett said, but huge billows of suffocating smoke and fumes quickly spread through the facility .

One rescued inmate said: We all laid down and threw mattresses over our faces . We were the lucky; ones . At least one of those reported dead on arrival Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 3.11.28 PMat area hospitals was a corrections officer. Officials withheld identification of the victims pending notification of relatives. Sheriff s spokesman John Spolski said the dead guard apparently was overcome by smoke on his second trip up the jail s narrow stairway to rescue unconscious prisoners. I don’t see how he did it, said Spolski. He went up one time and dragged some men down and then went up again. I tried to go up the stairs about 20 minutes after the fire started and couldn’t make it past three or four steps because of . the smoke . The fire began at 12 : 12 p.m. EDT, Harriett said, and the first units were on the scene within three minutes. The fire chief said at least two things hampered rescue efforts: —The rear entrance to the jail was blocked by more than 100 unclaimed bicycles being stored for an upcoming auction. —Jailers who tried to unlock cells were overcome by smoke , and gas-masked firemen had difficulty obtaining proper keys for cells. Officials initially said the jail elevator was knocked out in a power failure, disrupting rescue efforts. But they later said all inmates had been evacuated before the elevator failed.

 

NFPA Abstract of this Fire:

THE JUNE 1975 FIRE AT THE SEMINOLE COUNTY, FLORIDA, JAIL, IN WHICH 10 INMATES AND 1 STAFF MEMBER DIED, IS DESCRIBED BY THE NATIONAL FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATION SPECIALIST WHO INVESTIGATED THE FIRE.

THE TWO-STORY JAIL BUILT IN 1961 WAS MADE OF CONCRETE BLOCK; IT LACKED SPRINKLERS, SMOKE OR FIRE DETECTORS, AND ALARM SYSTEMS. APPARENTLY SET BY A PRISONER, THE FIRE BEGAN IN A STORAGE ROOM CONTAINING CHEMICALLY TREATED URETHANE MATTRESSES WHICH WAS LOCATED NEXT TO TWO SEGREGATED CELLS. THE BURNING MATTRESSES CAUSED A RAPID BUILDUP OF INTENSE HEAT AND TOXIC SMOKE. PRISONERS WERE UNABLE TO ESCAPE FROM THEIR LOCKED CELLS. A NEARBY STANDPIPE HOSE, BREATHING APPARATUS UNITS, AND PORTABLE FIRE EXTINGUISHERS WERE NOT USED. RESCUE ATTEMPTS WERE THWARTED BY MISPLACED JAIL KEYS AND BY BLOCKAGE OF AN EMERGENCY EVACUATION ROUTE. FURTHER INVESTIGATION SHOWED THAT SAFETY MEASURES PREVIOUSLY RECOMMENDED BY THE SEMINOLE COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF FIRE PROTECTION HAD NOT BEEN ADOPTED BY THE COUNTY JAIL ADMINISTRATION. THE FIRE DEMONSTRATED THE NEED FOR PROPER DESIGN, CONSTRUCTION, MAINTENANCE, AND OPERATION OF PRISONS IN ORDER TO MINIMIZE THE POSSIBILITY OF TRAGEDY. IN ADDITION, DETECTION, ALARM AND EXTINGUISHING SYSTEMS, AND PLANNING, TRAINING, AND DRILLING FOR FIRE ISOLATION AND INMATE EVACUATION ARE ALL NEEDED.

 

Referenced: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=61306

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http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1975/06/10/page/3/article/trapped-inmates-die-in-jail-fire

 

1 Comment on Seminole County, FL Jail Fire, June 9, 1975

  1. George C Markos // March 4, 2017 at 12:44 pm // Reply

    I was on duty at the Sanford Fire Department that day. I was hired in October of 1974 and a recent graduate of the Seminole Junior College Fire School… a rookie.

    Lewis Myers and I were the first in the building (Chief Harriet was in charge, but definitely didn’t lead anyone up the stairs). A deputy grabbed me by my collar and pant’s seat and shoved me toward the stairwell. After a few steps the fumes of burning mattress leaked in to my face mask of my SCBA, a Scott Air Pack (we didn’t wear “gas masks.”) I tightened the mask a notch and crawled up stairs.

    Note: I had never been in the jail and to my knowledge; no pre-fire training was done by any of our firefighters before the fire. After the fire one shift did a site visit each month, on a rotating basis for A, B and C Shifts. Thus, we had quarterly training of the facility.

    My 150′ 1 1/2″ preconnect came short of the east end of the building where the fire was set. No flames were visible but heavy smoke was clear to the floor. Prisoners were crying out for help. Most of their cell doors were closed and the corridor door for each cell block was closed. I used a fog to cool the hallway and then shot a straight stream in the direction I could hear prisoners screaming.

    The water was able to cover the cell corridor floors and the prisoners covered themselves with a mattress and whatever else they could find.

    We did not have radio communication then, so when my bell sounded I headed out to get another bottle and requested additional hose. Training Officer Lt. Poovey assisted me in removing the nozzle and adding a 50′ section to my attack line while it was still charged. The doors to the cells at the end of the corridor were solid steel doors and we were unable to put water directly on the smoldering foam mattresses.

    We went back outside to see if we could access the cell from the roof. One firefighter was on a ladder and trying to bust through the decorative block that was in front of the cell windows. There was nothing on the roof to access the cells, but some large round vents (possibly for the kitchen).

    In the meantime, someone was looking for the keys to the jail. The correction officer that was on duty was dead in front of a window A/C unit in his office with one set of keys. Another set was soon found downstairs. Each cell corridor had a locked panel in the main hallway that had to be unlocked. Once opened, there was a lever that would open the doors to the cells, then the main door to each cell block had to be opened to allow the prisoners out.

    Sadly, there was a small cell block on the east side of the second floor, approximately 15′ from the stairwell that held nine prisoners. Our initial efforts were toward the west side where the fire was located. The wind was blowing from the west and the smoke was exiting out of the east side. The individual cells on this east block were open and when the corridor door was finally opened, all nine inmates were discovered stacked up at the door.

    Once the doors were opened I went down to get a third bottle for my SCBA and there was only a 15 minute bottle available. I used the time to drag inmates down the stairwell to the teams performing rescue. Some were able to crawl down the stairs with encouragement. When my bottle was empty I requested another and they refused to give me one. They said I was cherry red and overheated. (The steel walls were found to be curled downward after the fire and they speculated the temperature could have reached 2,000 degrees to cause it to curl that much.) I was told to stay in the shade on the tailgate.

    When they stopped watching me I ran around to the Sally Port to assist in rescue efforts. A female volunteer from the Lake Mary Fire Department had an unconscious inmate and asked me to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The inmates had just been fed a lunch of Spam sandwiches and soup. When I tried to do the breaths the smell of partially digested Spam and soup came out his mouth. It cause me to heave and I could barely take a breath myself. After two tries, the firefighter recommended we swap positions and I was able to do the compressions.

    While doing CPR I could see a school bus at the back of the jail and officers with weapons drawn surrounding the jail. We did CPR until an ambulance making rounds from the hospital and back would arrive to relief us and transport the patient. We would find anther unconscious inmate and start over. CPR was being done anywhere you could find the room downstairs to perform it. One female deputy was straddling an inmate on an office desk while someone else was giving the breaths.

    I won’t argue with the number of inmates, but after the fire we were told there were 80 inmates in a jailed designed to hold 65. Of the eighty, 10 died… one at the fire and nine on the other side of the building. Even with the delay, we were able to rescue all of the inmates in the main part of the jail.

    There was a fire hose cabinet on a wall at the west side of the building. The hose was stacked on the floor beneath the rack preventing water from coming out the nozzle due to the kinks. There as a Scott Air Pack on the wall next to the hose still under the dust cover.

    Hours later we were pushing the several inches of water on the 2nd floor out of the building. The cook from the kitchen walked by with a platter of Spam sandwiches asking us if we would like to have one. The pot pies we left in the oven at the fire station were burned to a crisp, but still looked better than a Spam sandwich.

    Like

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