MARYVILLE, Mo. — Smoke damage from a fire that the sheriff’s office has initially deemed suspicious forced the evacuation and closure of the Nodaway County Jail Thursday, an incident that local officials believe could have been mitigated had a sprinkler system been installed in the building.

No injuries have been reported from the incident.

The fire began in a cell in the holding area of the jail just before 8 p.m. Thursday, and smoke was spotted in the cell on the video surveillance system by the two jailers on duty. When the door was opened, black smoke filled most of the facility within minutes. Sheriff Randy Strong and two deputies were still at the sheriff’s office working on a case, and the five of them immediately began the process of evacuating inmates.

“That building filled up so full of smoke last night — had just our two jailers been there, I’m pretty sure that we would be seeing loss of life,” Strong said during a briefing at an emergency meeting of the Nodaway County Commission Friday morning.

Maryville Public Safety and Northwest Missouri State University Police officers arrived to help evacuate and corral the 20 inmates who were being held in the jail at the time, and firefighters from the MPS Fire Division put out the flames quickly.

Some of the jail’s hallways through which inmates were evacuated cannot accommodate two people standing side-by-side. Strong said it “turned into a life or death situation quickly.”

“The issue we ran into — the doors are all designed to be locked,” Strong said. “Now you’ve got firemen trying to get in, we’re trying to get inmates out so the doors have to be (unlocked manually each time) … and then you’ve got smoke-filled hallways. That’s what we were up against. It was terrible circumstances. … We just got lucky.”

Inmates were checked out by ambulance crews before being cleared and held temporarily at the Nodaway County Administration Center. No injuries have initially been reported, and Strong said inmates were cooperative. All inmates have been transferred to the Buchanan County and Andrew County jails.

Presiding Commissioner Bill Walker said that Associate Circuit Court Judge Robert Rice assured him the court could connect to those facilities through a secure video system, just as they were able to at the Nodaway County Jail. But some court appearances will still need to be made in person, which for the time being, will mean ferrying them back and forth from the other counties.

Strong said he is working with MPS to determine how many and what types of suspects may be held at the few temporary holding cells at the R. Keith Wood Maryville Public Safety Headquarters from future arrests while the jail remains closed.

“We have a lot of damage in the cell where it started,” Strong said. “Obviously we deem that suspicious because there’s no outlets or anything that you can get to in that room. We have video evidence of what was going on … until that cell filled with smoke, and the fire marshal’s office is investigating the cause and origins of that fire.”

A mattress that had evidently been thrown on top of the flames exacerbated the amount and severity of the smoke, Strong said. Only one inmate was present in the cell where the fire began at the time it was started.

Most the building’s interior now bears the marks of the smoke that made its way through it, and Strong said some electronic equipment — like the digital fingerprinting system and breathalyzer — was likely damaged by the smoke.

Alarms and sprinkler system

In response to a question from South District Commissioner Scott Walk, Strong said the jail’s fire alarm system “hasn’t worked for years.”

Strong said the system was installed prior to his becoming sheriff in 2016, and that it’s his understanding the system has had problems since its installation.

Walker, expressing the sentiment of all three commissioners, said he was shocked to learn there was no fire suppression system — like sprinklers — in the building either, saying he “had no idea.” Officials present at Thursday’s meeting agreed sprinklers would likely have confined the damage to the cell where the fire originated or the immediate surrounding area.

Captain Scott Wedlock said he believed the county “opted out of” including a sprinkler system because of the cost when the building was constructed in 1986.

“I don’t know how you could opt out of it,” Walker said.

Before the meeting had ended, Walk had begun the process of pricing a sprinkler system for the jail.

“We’re going to have to make some major upgrades,” Walker said.


ORIGINAL STORY:

MARYVILLE, Mo. — A fire Thursday evening caused the evacuation of all inmates at the Nodaway County Jail, Sheriff Randy Strong said in a Facebook post Friday morning.

According to the post credited to Strong, staff reported a fire in an inmate’s cell at 7:57 p.m. Thursday, and began moving inmates to safety with the assistance of deputies and Maryville Public Safety officers. Maryville Fire Division firefighters quickly extinguished the fire, and there have been no reported injuries to inmates.

The fire’s cause is under investigation by the Missouri Fire Marshal’s office.

Due to fire, smoke and water damage, the jail will be closed until further notice. Jail inmates have been moved to the Andrew County and Buchanan County jails.

Strong said his office remains open for walk-in services on the lower floor of the Nodaway County Administration Center, and the office phone will continue to be answered for non-emergency calls only.

“I express my gratitude to jail staff and deputies that reacted quickly during this difficult event,” Strong said in the post. “They saved lives. Many thanks to Maryville Police and Fire, University Police, and the Nodaway County Ambulance District for their assistance. I also want to thank Buchanan County Sheriff (Bill) Puett and Andrew County Sheriff (Grant) Gillett.”

The Nodaway County Commission has called an emergency meeting Friday morning to address the jail situation. This story will be updated with more information as it becomes available.

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