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Investigators said they believe four inmates planned the foiled breakout attempt Thursday afternoon from Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City by starting a fire inside a sewing plant to divert guards, then running through a loading dock to reach the fence, Pasquotank County Sheriff Randy Cartwright said.
"We're fairly comfortable that at least four had a plan to attempt this escape and knew to do that some people were going to get harmed," Cartwright said in an interview. "This was definitely not a spontaneous incident."
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety said Thursday that about 3 p.m., inmates started a fire in the prison's specialty sewing plant, where about 30 inmates work for Correction Enterprises producing embroidered logo items, safety vests, and other sewn items.
Early Friday morning, officials identified the dead employees.
Correctional Officer Justin Smith, 35, provided security in the Correction Enterprises Specialty Sewing Plant. He had worked as a correctional officer since 2012.
Correction Enterprises Manager Veronica Darden, 50, supervised inmates working in the Specialty Sewing Plant. She had been a Correction Enterprises employee since 2007 and previously worked as a correctional officer.
Two other prison workers were in critical condition Friday and one in fair condition at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, hospital spokesman Peter Sengenberger said via email. He said 11 others injured in the disturbance were treated and discharged from the company's sister hospital in Elizabeth City, about 50 miles south.
Stabbing or slashing wounds predominated among the injured and people were attacked at several spots along the attempted escape route, Cartwright said. Some people may have suffered smoke inhalation, but the fire didn't cause serious burns, he said. None of the injured had gunshot wounds, according to the sheriff, but he wouldn't say whether guards fired on inmates to stop them. Four inmates were among the injured.
None of the prison's 725 inmates escaped, state prisons spokesman Keith Acree said. One inmate got as far as a barbed-wire fence around the prison, but got snagged and dropped to the ground as armed guards approached, Cartwright said.
North Carolina's governor offered his condolences for the two workers killed and on Friday ordered state flags lowered to half-staff for three days.
"Those who work in our prisons do a difficult and demanding job that is critical to our safety," Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement Thursday.
In April, a guard was killed while trying to stop a trash can fire in a dormitory at Bertie Correctional Institution, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of the Elizabeth City prison. Authorities said a male inmate wrestled the fire extinguisher from Sgt. Meggan Callahan, 29, and beat her to death.
The head of the state's chief state employee union said North Carolina prisons are understaffed, guards and other employees are attacked regularly and legislators should reverse dangerous conditions by hiring more officers.
"Correctional officers' safety issues have been ignored despite an assault every eight hours and we pray someone in power will finally care enough to do something," said State Employees Association of North Carolina President Stanley Drewery, a former corrections officer. "It's past time for the state to give these heroes the resources, training and manpower to ensure that they return home safely."
The complex reported other incidents this year. In April, an argument between two inmates led to one prisoner stabbing the other several times in the torso. Two months earlier, a guard was charged with trying to smuggle illegal drugs, phones and cigarettes into the prison.
"The DPS family is devastated by the tragic events that took place at Pasquotank Correctional Institution," Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks said in a statement. "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."
Pasquotank Correctional Institution is a high-security prison for adult male inmates. It employs about 410 people and can house nearly 900 inmates according to the prison website. DPS said there were 725 inmates incarcerated at this time in close, medium and minimum security.
Minimum-security prisoners work outside the walls on road gangs for the county recycling department and performing other community labor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.