Authorities suspect that a natural gas leak caused a massive explosion and fire at a Silver Spring, Md., apartment complex late Wednesday night that left two people dead, 34 injured and about 100 displaced.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett said “the working proposition” is that natural gas was involved in nearly leveling a building, but it took until early Thursday evening for investigators to stabilize the rubble enough to recover and remove the two bodies.
Several residents are still unaccounted for, officials said, and the two victims had not been identified.
Many who survived lost everything. After being treated for burns and cuts, Armindo Benitez returned first from the hospital to salvage what he could.
“But it was all gone,” he said. “I have no ID. I can’t get money out of the bank, and my car is blocked in.”
The power of the blast was felt almost two miles away at a fire station. County Council member Tom Hucker, who lives near the Flower Branch Apartments on Arliss Street, heard what sounded “like a sonic boom” and raced to the complex.
He saw blue flames, which typically indicate gas molecules are present. “I’m not a chemist, but we all know what gas flames look like,” he said.
Residents also suspected gas. One said a neighbor had smelled and heard the hiss of gas seconds before the explosion as he was taking out the trash.
Officials from Washington Gas declined to answer questions, saying the company was supporting the investigation.
“The type of information you are seeking will be addressed in the investigation,” spokesman Jim Monroe said. “We will update you at the appropriate time.”
Many residents of the working-class and primarily Spanish-speaking complex were left wondering whether the explosion could have been prevented. The affected addresses were at 8701, 8703 and 8705 Arliss St.
Officials said that on the night of July 25, firefighters were called to investigate the smell of gas at 8701. Logs show that personnel could not verify the smell and left the scene. Leggett said authorities are looking into that call.
Tenants had complained in recent years about poor maintenance of the apartments and had filed complaints with the county. Renato Mendoza, an organizer with CASA de Maryland, which helped file the reports, said the issues were primarily with rodents and other pests.
“The apartments are old and they require extra maintenance,” he said, but he added that the landlord, Kay Apartment Communities, “was notorious for not providing the most adequate maintenance.”
A woman who answered the phone at the company said executives had no immediate comment.
The blast, just before midnight, shot doors, clothes and shards of glass hundreds of feet away.
As flames engulfed the building, residents dropped their children out windows, then jumped.
“Everybody was getting out of the building as rapidly as possible,” Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said.
Clara Mazumber said she woke up to a loud “boom,” looked out her bedroom window and saw flames. The 39-year-old yelled to her two sons, ages 18 and 10, to get out of the apartment.
On Thursday morning, she stood outside a temporary shelter at a recreation center with all she had left: a wool jacket, her nightgown, pink flip-flops and her large white purse.
“It was so scary,” Mazumber said.
More than 100 fire and rescue personnel faced a chaotic scene when they arrived. A collapsed building was in the middle of two apartment wings. Residents were trapped inside all three sections and had to be helped out. Three firefighters were treated for injuries, including heat exhaustion.
As the sun rose Thursday, a horrific picture emerged. Large sections of the brick apartment building were demolished. Other portions were charred down to the wood frame. The grassy courtyard was covered in glass. Neighbors stood watching the building smolder.
Federal and state authorities are assisting in the investigation. Montgomery County Battalion Chief Steve Mann said it could be “weeks” before they determine what caused the fire.
“This was a very large fire with a well advanced and significant explosion, unlike anything we would expect to find in this type of fire,” Mann said.
Mann said cadaver dogs with video equipment located the two bodies Thursday morning.
Dozens of people were injured and taken to hospitals. The injuries ranged from minor to serious, authorities said. Some had respiratory problems from smoke, and others had burns and fractures from jumping out of windows.
It was unclear Thursday evening how many remained hospitalized and in what conditions.
Gustavo Zuniga and his wife were ready to fall asleep when they heard a boom before the floor beneath their bed opened. They fell two stories, bouncing against the cushion and the rest of their bedroom furniture that dropped with them.
“It was like something out of a movie,” the 42-year-old said.
“I thank God. He helped us out,” Zuniga said as he pressed the crucifix dangling on his neck between his fingers. His wife rescued Zuniga after the fall knocked him unconscious, clawing through debris to reach him.
They were taken to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where Zuniga was treated for second-degree burns on his feet and received stitches to his head. As rescuers held a press conference Thursday, Zuniga stood nearby wearing yellow hospital socks over bandaged feet.
For those lucky enough to avoid injuries, the aftermath was no less devastating.
Helder Lopez was watching television with his family when the explosion occurred. Lopez lives in a second-floor apartment with six other family members, including his wife and infant son.
He said he lost his car keys, wallet and sensitive documents in the tragedy. The entire family lost clothes. Sitting on a concrete surface outside a temporary shelter, Lopez pondered what to do next but couldn’t find a solution.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said.
Officials from Montgomery County and the American Red Cross set up the shelter at the Long Branch Recreation Center, a few blocks from the apartment complex.
Paul Carden, regional disaster officer for the Red Cross, said the organization had cots in the gymnasium and was preparing to help people find more permanent shelter. The Red Cross is expected to be on the scene for several days.
“The number of households impacted is significant,” Carden said. “And the impact is more emotional because it was an explosion. I was at the scene, and there’s someone’s shoe here, someone’s sock there and someone’s papers over there.”
Chuck Crisostomo, operations chief of Montgomery County Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said many families have gone back to the apartments to see whether they can recover belongings, though Crisostomo said up to 24 units have been destroyed.
“When I ask them their address and I hear the address that is completely demolished, I have to break the news to them that [they] may not have any belongings to salvage whatsoever,” Crisostomo said.
The community, located in Long Branch, was already facing stress. The area is at the center of an ongoing debate over gentrification. It’s on the Purple Line route — two stops are planned there — and there is concern about the largely immigrant, low-income population being forced out.
Now, an explosion has upended hundreds of lives.
Community and faith-based groups were camping out at the Long Branch Community Center, where displaced families were getting assistance. Teachers at nearby elementary schools are trying to collect food, water, school supplies and other necessities to donate to the families.
CASA, an immigrant advocacy group that works with tenants in Silver Spring, is providing interpretation services to the affected families, which include immigrants from Central America and Africa. The group is also coordinating with other agencies to collect donations.
“These families have lost everything they had,” said Rommel Sandino, who is coordinating the aid effort with CASA. Dozens of families, including many mothers with children, are seeking help, he said.
“They are devastated,” Sandino said. “They have lost everything they had built in this country.”
Alice Crites, Luz Lazo, Fenit Nirappil and LaVendrick Smith contributed to this report.