2 employees dead after fire, attempted inmate escape at NC prison

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. After the fire was started, several inmates tried unsuccessfully to escape.

The fires were extinguished by 5 p.m.

Ten patients were taken to Sentara Albemarle Medical Center, three of whom were taken to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in critical condition. Seven other employees were treated and released.

Four inmates were treated at the prison for injuries, according to NCDPS.

Sentara officials issued the following statement Thursday night:

We will issue no additional updates on an individual patient condition until tomorrow.

Family and friends coming to either SAMC or SNGH campus should bring government issued identification and the patient’s full name.

Three nearby schools were placed on lockdown — Northside Elementary School, Elizabeth City Middle School and Pasquotank County High School. The lockdowns have since been lifted.

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.

Governor 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.

Photo courtesy: Katelyn Corprew

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