Eight inmates die in county jail fire in North Carolina

Sunday, May 5, 2002

BAKERSVILLE, N.C. -- Fire broke out at a county jail in the mountains of western North Carolina, killing eight inmates who were locked inside its cells and injuring 13 other people, authorities said.

Mitchell County Sheriff Ken Fox, whose office runs the 1950s-era jail, said it appeared that Friday night's fire began in a storage room on the jail's ground floor and quickly spread through the two-story brick and wood building.

Fox said Saturday that he didn't suspect foul play.

"You don't know what to say," Fox told reporters, adding that he knew some of the inmates personally. "You can't find the words. It's just tragic."

Seven inmates were found dead in an upstairs cell, and another died in a ground-floor holding area not far from the storage room, Fox said. They all appeared to have died from smoke inhalation, he said. Autopsies were planned.

At the time of the fire, the jail held 17 inmates -- some serving time for misdemeanors and others awaiting trial on felonies.

A jailer smelled smoke and called for help shortly after 10 p.m., Fox said. The jailer and an inmate trustee tried to rescue trapped inmates, but heavy smoke forced them out of the building, according to the sheriff. The jail's four cells only could be opened one at a time with keys, he said.

"Once it got going and broke through the roof, it spread real quick," Fox said. The fire covered the back of the two-story building and heavy smoke filled the jail by the time firefighters responded.

About 100 firefighters from four counties had extinguished the fire by 11:30 p.m., said Mark Broadway, a county spokesman.

No sprinklers

There were no sprinklers in the jail, Fox said. It was not immediately clear whether the jail's smoke detectors sounded.

Among the injured, five inmates and three jail employees were being treated at a hospital in nearby Spruce Pine. One inmate was treated and then taken to the Yancey County Jail, and another was treated and then freed, Fox said. A firefighter was also treated for smoke inhalation.

Two other injured inmates were sent to hospitals in Charlotte and Asheville.

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