Gov. Carney denies delaying rescue attempt in fatal prison siege

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 Gov. John Carney told WHYY he did not overrule a warden and delay a rescue attempt during February's prison uprising that left one guard dead and others injured. (File/WHYY)

Gov. John Carney told WHYY he did not overrule a warden and delay a rescue attempt during February's prison uprising that left one guard dead and others injured. (File/WHYY)

Gov. John Carney denies a lawsuit’s allegation that he overruled the warden and delayed a rescue attempt by nearly 18 hours during the February prison hostage crisis in Delaware that left one guard dead and others injured.

Carney told WHYY that when the facts eventually come out, it will be clear that he didn’t intervene and halt a plan to rescue several guards, a counselor and possibly prisoners overtaken by about 100 inmates Feb. 1 at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna.

“I allowed my team to make those decisions. They have the authority to do it. They have the training to do it and that’s the way it unfolded,” Gov. Carney said Thursday after an event in Wilmington.

“It was a very tense time and situation. We have that team of state police, correctional officers, federal folks that were on the phone with the inmates that they were communicating with and they were making all the decisions.”

Asked by a reporter if he “categorically denied” ordering then-Warden David Pierce to halt plans to storm Building C, Carney said, “Absolutely.”

Carney’s denial marked his first public comments about the lawsuit filed Tuesday by the family of Lt. Steven Floyd Sr., who was killed during the siege, and five other correctional officers.

Pierce, who was placed on administrative leave with pay three weeks after the uprising, has not commented on the lawsuit, which also claimed he was “enraged” when Carney quashed his plans to rescue the hostages.

The governor, who was inaugurated 15 days before inmates took hostages at Vaughn, is not a defendant in the case.

The defendants are Carney’s predecessors, Jack Markell and Ruth Ann Minner, along with other prison and budget administrators who are accused of failing to properly fund and operate the Department of Correction and its facilities. Their “dereliction” led to extreme understaffing, inadequate training and overreliance on overtime by guards who often worked 16-hour shifts, creating dangerous conditions at Vaughn, the lawsuit said.

Markell, reached Thursday, would not discuss the lawsuit.

“I obviously feel very bad for the [Floyd] family, but I’m not going to comment on that,” Markell said.

Attempts to reach Minner have been unsuccessful.

The lawsuit claimed that Pierce was prepared to have a Correctional Emergency Response Team force its way into Building C within about an hour of the start of the siege, which began about 10:20 a.m.

Pierce “had given the go ahead” to retake the building and rescue Sgt. Floyd and all the other hostages before their lives were further endangered, the lawsuit said.

But Carney “intervened, overruled the warden and halted the rescue attempt, for presently unknown reasons,” the lawsuit said. The governor “decided that a rescue would be attempted the next day.”

The lawsuit claims Carney’s actions violated all emergency preparedness training, policies and procedures governing the rescue of hostages at Vaughn, the state’s largest prison. As of Friday, Vaughn had 2,325 men imprisoned there, spokeswoman Chelsea Hicks said.

Instead of following Pierce’s initial plan, Carney’s “belated rescue effort” began about 5:06 a.m. on Feb. 2, the lawsuit said.

Rescuers found Floyd dead, the victim of a brutal homicide. The time of Floyd’s death is unclear because officials have not released it and according to the lawsuit, Carney has refused the family’s request to see the autopsy report.

Carney countered that when the details are revealed, it will be clear that the lawsuit’s allegations about him are false.

“Those details will come out as they should in the appropriate venue,” the governor said, “and not by me talking about what happened when I shouldn’t.”

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