ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. - Two North Carolina prison employees were killed and several others hurt after inmates at a sewing plant started a fire in an unsuccessful escape attempt Thursday, authorities said.
The Department of Public Safety identified the employees as 35-year-old Correctional Officer Justin Smith and 50-year-old Correction Enterprises manager Veronica Darden.
How the employees were killed at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City was not released.
Smith provided security in the Correction Enterprises Specialty Sewing Plant. He has worked as a correctional officer since 2012.
Darden supervised inmates working in the Specialty Sewing Plant and had been an employee since 2007. She had previously worked as a correctional officer.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper ordered that all North Carolina state flags to be lowered to half-staff on Friday from sunrise to sunset on Monday, Oct. 16 in tribute to Smith and Darden.
"Those who work in our prisons do a difficult and demanding job that is critical to our safety," Cooper said. "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."
Three other prison employees remain hospitalized in critical condition, while seven prison employees were treated and released from the hospital.
Four inmates were also treated for injuries.
At least 10 people were taken to hospitals after the fire about 3 p.m. Thursday, Sentara Albemarle Medical Center spokesman Peter Sengenberger said.
Officials said the inmates started the fire at a Correction Enterprises sewing plant inside prison walls. The plant makes safety vests and embroidered items, Acree said in a statement.
Prison workers performed several counts after the fire and all 725 inmates were accounted for, Acree said.
The prison near the northeast North Carolina coast can house nearly 900 adult male felons in both high-security and minimum-custody buildings. Minimum-security prisoners work outside the walls on road gangs for the county recycling department and perform other community labor.
The public school district locked doors at three nearby schools after getting word about 3:30 p.m. of the escape attempt. The notice came as students at one of the facilities, Pasquotank High School, were just to be released for the day and after dismissal times for the elementary and middle schools, said Tammy Sawyer, a spokeswoman for Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. Buses were ordered back to their schools with any students still in transit.
"We didn't want kids home alone or in transport with the potential situation that was unfolding," Sawyer said. Local emergency management officials said about 5 p.m. it was again safe for students to return home.
The prison has reported other incidents this year. In April, an argument between two inmates at the prison led to one prisoner stabbing the other several times in the upper torso. Two months earlier, a guard was charged with trying to smuggle illegal drugs, phones and cigarettes behind prison walls.
Statement from Public Safety Secretary Rrik A. Hooks:
"The DPS family is devastated by the tragic events that took place at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. Our deepest sympathies go out to the families and co-workers of the employees who lost their lives in service to the State.
We will do everything we can to support their families during this difficult time.
I want to thank law enforcement and emergency responders for their assistance, and we will do everything we can to assist the investigation."
Statement from Chief Deputy Secretary W. David Guice:
"Our hearts are broken by this tragedy that took members of our Correction family. Words cannot express our deep sorrow. We will work closely with investigators to learn the circumstances of today’s incident and bring to justice those responsible."
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