Thieves who stole a gas meter from a 52-unit apartment complex in Southwest Washington on Wednesday triggered a brief but "very dangerous situation" when they fled leaving an open pipe with explosive gas escaping from it, gas company officials reported yesterday.

Washington Gas Light Co. workers capped the pipe about a half hour after the large gray master meter was ripped from the basement of the Elmwood Apartments at Danbury and South Capitol streets and two suspects were seen leaving in a pickup truck.

The sweet-and-sour smell of natural gas filled the neighborhood as the few tenants in the nearly abandoned apartment complex were evacuated and gas company crewmen gingerly turned off the gas supply and capped the pipe, witnesses said yesterday.

"Whoever took that meter created a very dangerous situation," said gas company spokeswoman Susan Butz. "It's just fortunate nothing happened."

The meter theft was the latest in a series of incidents and mishaps at the ill-fated apartment complex in far Southwest Washington near the Prince George's County line.

The two rambling brick buildings, many of their windows smashed or boarded up, have been without heat, hot water, trash pickup or maintenance service for months. Last November, the huge metal boiler for the heating system disappeared, apparently stolen.

The landlord of record, Washington area businessman Alfred L. Black, owes the city more than $28,000 in unpaid water and sewer bills and $12,000 in back taxes. In addition, the city has paid more than $100,000 in back gas and electric bills to keep the building habitable for handful of tenants still there.

City housing officials described the situation as one of the worst examples of "walkaway" or property abandonment by a landlord in the District of Columbia.

Of the orginial population of 200 tenants, about 25 remain.

Black has refused to discuss the property with reporters.

Tenants were angry yesterday and concerned that they may not simply be the victims of random thefts.

"It's like sabotage," said tenants association president Bertha Graves. "First they stole our hot water boiler, now the gas meter. . . . Now they're playing with our lives."

Graves said tenants called police and told them neighborhood children observed two white men arrive in a blue Chevrolet pickup truck in the predominantly black area, enter the apartment complex basement and then leave with the master meter.

Gas company spokeswoman Butz said theft of an apartment master meter is "not a usual occurence." Asked if there would be any particular motive, she said, "Not really -- except to install it somewhere else."