By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) – A turreted, Victorian-era jail, the site of Pennsylvania’s last public hanging in 1879, was destroyed by a massive fire that forced the evacuation of hundreds of prisoners at gunpoint, officials said on Thursday.
More than 200 firefighters from six counties battled the six-alarm blaze, which broke out at the Northumberland County Prison on Wednesday afternoon, according to local media. It was brought under temporary control before midnight but rekindled early Thursday morning.
The cause of the fire is still unknown and investigators are looking into the possibility that it was touched off by an electrical problem, said Brad Hare, chief of police in Sunbury, about 50 miles north of Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania.
County officials have no plans to rebuild the 137-year-old jail.
“The prison is completely shot,” said Commissioner Vinny Clausi during an emergency meeting of the county prison board broadcast on radio station WKOK. “It needs to be torn down.”
He said the county will consider building a regional prison with surrounding counties, or possibly enter into a lease-back arrangement with a company that builds prisons.
The prison, which opened in 1877, was the scene of Pennsylvania’s last public hanging two years later. More recently, it housed Miranda Barbour, the so-called “Craigslist Killer,” before she was sentenced to a state prison for life.
Prison reformers say the facility, which resembled a castle, had long since become a health and safety hazard to the 208 inmates within its 23-foot stone walls. A lawsuit filed by the Lewisburg Prison Project in 2008 on behalf of 12 inmates described conditions at the facility as medieval.
Warden Bruce Kovach told the prison board that all 208 inmates were evacuated to safety on Wednesday. They were initially taken at gunpoint by police to a church across the street before being bused to nearby state prisons.
Kovach credited one prison official, who was not identified, with donning an airpack and racing to unlock individual cells as smoke filled the building. The prison did not have a master locking system.
Jere Krakoff, one of the lawyers who brought the 2008 lawsuit, told Reuters the aging prison was unbearably hot in summer and cold in winter. Dank, windowless cells in the basement were used for punishment.
“We really did fear a catastrophic fire,” Krakoff said. “Their position was it couldn’t happen. They thought fire extinguishers would be sufficient. We thought that was absurd.”
(Reporting By Frank McGurty; Editing by Doina Chiacu)