The fire, which is believed to have started in a shed adjacent to the first-floor drunk tank, was first noticed by Diane Greene, the only jailer on duty, who was in the office with the only female prisonera trustyat 10:05 p.m. Apparently, no attempt was made to release the sixteen male prisoners incarcerated at the jail until deputies and firefighters arrived several minutes later. Two other deputies and a firefighter then attempted to rescue eight men from the first floor cell. One of the deputies had to flee the building for fresh air. The others helped four conscious and four unconscious prisoners out of the jail. By then, smoke and heat made it impossible to reach the second floor cell where seven prisoners died. The fire burned for ninety minutes.
Sheriff Kenneth Fox said that most of the dead prisoners were in on minor charges and several were "good boys." Fox also said that the 47-year old jail, which had no sprinkler system, "like many aging jails in this part of the state, needed to be replaced." According to Fox, the cell window, which had been left open to allow fresh air in, acted like a chimney when the fire broke out. Mitchell county was later fined $7,350 for violating state fire safety codes and failing to properly install smoke detectors. The county also agreed to pay $8,500 in funeral expenses for each of the dead prisoners. Prosecutors cleared Fox and Greene of any criminal conduct in the blaze.
Source: The Seattle Times, New York Times
Editors Note: The Bakersville, North Carolina fire is an example of why lawsuits about fire hazards in prisons and jails are so important. Waiting until there is a fire to correct unsafe conditions is foolish and often fatal.
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