ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (WAVY) — Two prison employees died and several others were injured following a fire and attempted prison break Thursday afternoon at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety has identified the two victims as Justin Smith, a 35-year-old correctional officer and Veronica Darden, a 50-year-old correction enterprises manager.
Officials said inmates started a fire around 3 p.m. at the prison’s specialty sewing plant, where about 30 inmates work. The fires were extinguished by 5 p.m.
After the fire was started, several inmates tried to escape the prison. In a news conference Friday, officials said there was no evidence any inmates left the prison yard.
Fourteen patients were taken to Sentara Albemarle Medical Center, three of whom were taken to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. Sentara Healthcare officials said 10 of the 14 transported were employees, while the other four were inmates.
Of more than a dozen people hospitalized, three remain at Sentara Norfolk.
Annie Harvey, Deputy Director of Prisons, identified the remaining patients at Sentara Norfolk as Correctional Officers Wendy Shannon and George Midgett and maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe. Officer Midgett has been upgraded to fair condition. Howe and Officer Shannon remain in critical condition, Harvey said.
Howe’s aunt told 10 On Your Side he was attacked with a hammer, underwent surgey and was in the neuro ICU.
“We are praying for their recovery,” Harvey said. “Correctional Officers work every day to keep you safe and often we don’t feel that we receive the same respect that other law enforcement officers do. I ask that you call us Correctional Officers, not guards because they do more than just guard a door. We believe in what we do. We are committed in keeping you safe. but things are going to happen because it’s prison.”
Officials said the seven other employees and four inmates injured in the incident have been released from Sentara Albemarle.
Officials said Friday an estimated 200 law enforcement officers responded to the incident. The prison remained on lockdown Friday for “security reasons.”
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced action on prison safety Friday afternoon — including suspending an inmate work program.
Three nearby schools were placed on lockdown — Northside Elementary School, Elizabeth City Middle School and Pasquotank County High School. The lockdowns were lifted Thursday evening.
All afternoon activities at the schools were cancelled.
Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools sent out the following message Thursday afternoon:
Due to an incident that is taking place at the local jail north of town, Northside Elementary, Elizabeth City Middle School and Pasquotank County High School have been placed on lock down at the advice of Emergency Management.
Students who are bus riders who have not arrived home as of yet, will be returned to the school until we hear further from Emergency Management. Students and staff currently at these schools will not be released until we hear further from Emergency Management.
A follow up notification will be issued to update parents as to the lock down situation at our schools.
The school system said on Facebook — at the time of the lockdowns — that students on buses who had not made it home were taken back to the schools because of the potential for inmates being in the area.
Elizabeth City fire crews and EMS responded to the prison, along with local police officers and sheriff’s office deputies.
A spokesperson with the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed a helo crew from Elizabeth City was assisting North Carolina officials with the response to the incident.
Gov. Roy Cooper released this statement:
“Those who work in our prisons do a difficult and demanding job that is critical to our safety. We’re grateful to these fallen prison employees for their service, and we offer our condolences to their families, friends, coworkers and community on this tragic loss.”
According to NCDPS, the prison consists four buildings, in addition to inmate housing. This includes a visiting area, recreation area, dining hall, warehouse, vocational and academic classrooms, medical and mental health offices, and administrative offices.