Jay, FL State Prison Road Camp Fire Kills 37, July 1967
37 DEAD IN ROAD CAMP FIRE TRIGGERED BY CONVICT BRAWL.
5 OF 14 RESCUED ARE HOSPITALIZED.
Jay, Fla. (AP) -- Thirty seven prisoners were killed at a recently integrated state prison road camp Sunday night, state officials said today, when disgruntled convicts fired scrap paper and inadvertently turned their locked barracks into a flaming oven.
Fourteen of the 51 prisoners inside the burning building were rescued. Five were hospitalized with burns at nearby Century. One was taken to the intensive care unit at Pensacola hospital and eight were transferred to the jail at Pensacola.
The fires was set by prisoners, said LOUIS WAINWRIGHT, director of the State Corrections Division. A guard saw two prisoners -- one a Negro and another white -- touching lighted matches to newspapers, WAINWRIGHT said.
G. C. MAYNE, JR., assistant warden at the camp, earlier had said the barracks erupted into flame when battling prisoners, a Negro and a white, broke a gas line and smashed a fluorescent lamp.
WAINWRIGHT, after conferring at the scene with three agents of the state fire marshals office, said vapor from the broken fluorescent lamp was ignited by the burning newspapers.
"I'm sure they didn't anticipate what would happen," WAINWRIGHT said, "but they anticipated there would be some slight damage and this would cause some of them to be transferred to Raiford or elsewhere."
The state penitentiary is at Raiford.
WAINWRIGHT said he didn't know exactly why the men were displeased. "There has been no indication that any racial problem was involved at the facility.
PASCO ROWELLS, a State Highway Department foreman who supervised the men at work, said the fight began between a Negro and a white man. He said there had been reports of racial trouble and fights between the 35 Negro prisoners and 16 whites since the camp was integrated last week.
The first fire alarm came at 10:42 p.m. Guard COCKER NELSON said the aging World War II style barracks was destroyed in eight minutes.
Rescue workers retrieved 35 bodies when the embers cooled two victims ran from the burning building and dropped dead on a lawn.
"The whole room was wrapped up with fire," Santa Rosa sheriff's dispatcher H. C. CRAWFORD quoted a surviving prisoner brought to the county jail at nearby Milton. All eight unharmed convicts were jailed there overnight.
"Somebody hollered 'fire,'" GEROLD MILLIGAN, the prisoner, was quoted as saying. MILLIGAN said he was sitting on his bunk removing his shoes. Then, he said, the fire "swept the whole top of the building."
"They began to pass out," MILLIGAN said. He said he ducked under beds and crawled toward the locked door holding his nose.
Just as he reached the door a guard opened it and MILLIGAN escaped the flames with only his hair singed.
Chief Deputy HARVELL ENFINGER confirmed MAYNE'S report that the fire flashed through the barracks when the flourescent light, torn from the ceiling, touched off escaping gas. ENFINGER said the fight went from one end of the barracks to the other, but couldn't say how many persons were involved.
The victims worked on road crews during the day and were quartered at Road Camp 12 each night. The prison site is eight miles east of Jay, a farming community of about 5,000 located in the extreme north-western tip of Florida's panhandle about 30 miles north of Pensacola at the Alabama state line.
Bars which prevented escape through the barracks windows lay in the glowing ashes.
A. O. LOVETT, one of three guards on duty when the fire erupted, said some of the prisoners, apparently frightened by the curtain of flame separating them from the door, refused to come out.
LOVETT went in and brought out several of the prisoners.
LOVETT was burned but did not require hospitalization.
At least two of the rescued convicts dashed back into the inferno and helped rescue other prisoners, WAINWRIGHT said. He was unable to say if any of those who went back in died, but said two men who escaped the flames later died on the lawn outside the barracks.
Six hours after the initial report, 35 bodies still lay on the ground near the gutted barracks. Sixteen of them, each wrapped in an olive drab body bag furnished by the Navy, were laid side by side on a basketball court in front of the barracks. Behind the building, 19 more bodies were laid out.
They were still inside the barbed wire prison compound.
LOVETT was treated at the Century Hospital and stayed on to guard the prisoners there, some of whom were delirious. A reporter at the hospital said two of the prisoners were screaming: "Where am I? Where am I?"
WAINWRIGHT promised a full investigation of the tragedy.
Officials said the facility is almost identical to nearby Road Camp 9, closed June 30 because it was costing the state to much money to maintain. Inspectors from the Prison Commission had reported poor conditions at Camp 9, nine miles north of Pensacola, a spokesman said.
The News Tribune Fort Pierce Florida 1967-07-17