The day the inmates cheered
By John L. Moore
Prisoners standing in “freezing cold” out of doors but still inside the walls of the Northumberland County Prison cheered as they watched fire shooting through the roof of the old Sunbury jail last Jan. 14.
“The flames were 20, 30 feet in the air. The inmates just started to cheer,” one of the prisoners recalled. “It was like this place needed to go. We realized that this wasn’t a small fire, that this was it – the end of the NCP.”
As the first anniversary of the Jan. 14 fire approached, the man agreed to an interview provided that his identity was withheld. He was one of 208 prisoners evacuated during the firefight. He has since been released from custody. His story offers an inside look of the final hours of the old jail, which had admitted its first inmate in August 1877.
The man said he had been napping in his cell in the right wing when the Jan. 14 blaze began.
“I woke up to a guy yelling, ‘Hey, wake up! There’s a fire!’ ” the man said. It was “one of the corrections officers. He unlocked the cell. He was loud, but he didn’t sound alarmed.”
Roused, “I got up. I put my shoes on. I put on my hoody, … When I got out of my cell, most other prisoners were gone, and I went to the exit.”
Once outside he realized that fire was raging in the left wing. He joined a large group of other inmates, all men, perhaps 80 or more, who had gathered in a small area off the right wing.
“It was very crowded. The inmates were excited, and the COs (correctional officers) kept trying to get a count. … They tried to count heads, but the inmates kept moving around, and this made it difficult to do their count.”
The guards kept telling the prisoners to “try and stay still” so they could get an accurate number.
The inmates could see that “there was a lot of smoke from the left wing,” the man said. “All of a sudden flames shot through the roof.”
The inmates cheered.
They cheered again when they saw that some of the guards were also firefighters who had turned out to battle the blaze.
They watched as one firefighter appeared through a window in a room in one of the jail’s towers. They saw the room filling with smoke and watched as the fireman struck the window with an axe. “He was banging on it really hard, and it wasn’t breaking,” the man said. Suddenly the axe smashed the window, “and the smoke poured out, and the inmates cheered.”
Eventually, the prisoners learned they were going to be evacuated.
“We were going to walk two by two through the basement. We were going to come out in the front,” the man said.
It seemed that the evacuation proceeded slowly but orderly. “The line was very long and very still and the building was on fire,” the man said.
As the men filed through the basement, they passed by the kitchen and encountered Commander Brian Wheary, who told them, “Everybody, keep calm. Keep moving.”
Even though the situation itself was “nerve racking,” Wheary “was real calm. He was in it with us.”
When the prisoners reached the front of the building, they were told that they were being taken to a church across the street. They were also instructed to “walk calmly. Do not make any sudden moves or you will be shot.” The jailers also used plastic ties to secure pairs of inmates to each other by the wrist.
The man said that when he went outside, he saw at least a hundred lawmen with weapons. “I don’t think I ever saw so many law enforcement people, all with guns, at one place except in the movies,” he said.
To be sure, there were also many firemen, firetrucks and emergency workers.
The man said that he and another inmate crossed the sidewalk and started across the street without realizing the street was coated with ice formed when water from the firehoses froze.
“I took one step off the curb and I immediately started to slip,” he said.
He fell but got up and continued across North Second Street to the Faith United Methodist Church.
“We all went down into the basement,” which was “as orderly as a group of 200 prisoners is going to be.” There were armed police officers, one of whom had a big German Shepherd.
“We sat in the basement for a long time,” the man said. “My probation officer was there, which was very nice. On the way out, he said, “I’ll call your mom and dad, and tell them you’re OK.”
Eventually buses took the men to the State Correctional Institution in Coal Township.
Thus the old jail, which cost about $140,000 to build in 1876-77, passed into history.