The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She had been in the U.S. for only hours when an explosion changed everything

Bitseat Getaneh, right, with mother Adanech Wendmukn and her sister Miskabe. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

Exhausted after an overseas flight from Ethiopia, Bitseat Getaneh lay down just before 9 p.m.

In the other room of Apartment 201 were friends of her family, also Ethio­pian but a couple she’d just met. The husband, a cabdriver, had picked her up at Dulles International Airport. His wife, a home health aide, had welcomed the 16-year-old with a huge Ethiopian dinner. They were waiting for a doctoral student, who also was staying with them, to come home.

The three would serve as Bitseat’s hosts in Silver Spring, Md., just north of Washington, while she adjusted to living for the first time outside her country. Then she’d be off to tiny Corn, Okla., to study at a Christian school for a year on a student visa.

In her bags: more than $6,000 cash for tuition. In her hopes: becoming a neurosurgeon.

Three hours later, a thunderous boom erupted. Searing heat woke Bitseat, who saw massive orange flames — Were they real? she wondered — eating up the darkness. She stumbled through the crumbling apartment.

“Please, God, save me,” she prayed aloud.

It was a year ago Thursday that the massive explosion — heard for miles, with fire four stories high — tore through the Flower Branch Apartments.

More than 100 residents, many working-class immigrants from Central America and Africa, escaped. They ran down smoke-filled stairs, tossed children off balconies to strangers below and were coaxed down firefighters’ ladders. Some were blown from apartments and landed relatively unharmed only to watch everything they owned be engulfed by fire.

Huge fire and explosion levels Md. apartment complex

Seven residents didn’t make it out. Their remains, found over several days by firefighters combing through rubble by hand, were unrecognizable. Forensic scientists pulled DNA samples as investigators tracked down close relatives to submit samples of their own — genetic markers that confirmed a loss that even today overwhelms brothers, sisters, children and parents left behind.

The cause of the disaster remains known only in broad terms.

Just before midnight, on Aug. 10, natural gas built up in a basement utility room, probably from a leak in a high-pressure pipe that supplied gas to the heating system, or in the mechanical equipment through which gas flowed. A flame source, possibly a hot-water heater, ignited the blast and tore apart the piping system — which allowed more high-pressure gas to feed the fire for 72 minutes.

The National Transportation Safety Board, better known for its work on airplane and train crashes, launched a probe, one of the few pipeline investigations it does each year. Conclusions are likely to be months away, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.

Apartment 201 sat two stories directly above the utility room.

For Bitseat, everyday sounds — the pop of a soda can opening, the crackle of a plastic bag — still can send her running to the nearest door.

Yet the fire that scarred her inside and out also led to possibilities she couldn’t have imagined — living in Maryland with her mother, enrolling in a top-flight high school and positioning herself for a college scholarship.

She could see none of that a year ago when dazed but safe she wandered near the complex, believing that her hosts had made it out and turning when she heard an Ethio­pian man speaking nearby.

Pain and fear took over.

“I want to go back to Ethiopia,” she told him.

‘Is that me’?

Bitseat arrived at Children’s National hospital just after midnight with burns, a fractured collar bone and an utter resolve not to alarm her parents.

No, she told doctors and nurses, she would not call Ethiopia to get consent for surgery. Her mother was seven months pregnant. Her father had high blood pressure. After three hours, they persuaded her to call.

Bitseat told her mother she had had a serious accident, without any specifics. Her mother’s soft cries made it clear she knew better.

So did Bitseat.

She could not bend her left elbow or close her left hand. Physical therapists worked with her one inch at a time in excruciating sessions. Bitseat put on a brave front, trying to smile whenever doctors and nurses came to treat her. When she learned two of her hosts from the apartment — the cabdriver, Aseged Mekonen, and the home health aide, Seada Ibrahim, hadn’t been heard from, she told herself that in the chaos after the fire they must have ended up in a different hospital or been taken in by friends.

But in the quiet of night, sitting alone with thick bandages on both arms, she cried tears she couldn’t wipe away herself.

“Am I the only one here without parents?” Bitseat asked nurses. “Am I the only one here alone?”

No, they told her. “It’s really hard now,” Bitseat recalls hearing. “It’s going to be okay.”

Her room at the end of the hallway made it difficult for nurses to constantly be with her. They asked whether she wanted to move closer to their main station. It would be louder, but with the door open she could see them — and they would be in and out.

Bitseat said yes. She assumed the room, like the one she was leaving, would have paper covering the mirrors and the window glass. As she was wheeled into her new spot, a mix-up became suddenly apparent: Bitseat saw her face in a window.

“Oh, my God,” Bitseat asked. “Is that me?”

Identifying remains

At the Montgomery County Police Department, Detective Frank Springer and colleagues worked to identify the remains of the missing seven.

They had a list of missing residents and contacted local family members for DNA. The first matches came together slowly — a 3-year-old boy, a 65-year-old grandfather and, from Apartment 201, the 34-year-old Ethiopian cabdriver, Mekonen.

The final remains probably were Mekonen’s 40-year-old wife. But Springer could not find a biologically close relative in the Washington area. He learned about a potential brother in Ethi­o­pia and, shortly afer 10 p.m.. Aug. 15, emailed him. Subject line: “please contact me.”

Seven thousand miles away, Hussein Adem, a middle school math teacher, opened the email with dread.

By then, the terrifying story had been picked up in Ethiopian news. He hadn’t been able to reach his sister. He wrote to Springer, telling him he was a brother. “Please guide me,” he wrote, his English broken but clear. “What expected to do myself.”

Springer would have to send a DNA collection kit to the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa. “How far,” he wrote to Adem, “from the embassy are you?”

“Abot 10 km,” Adem responded.

Days later, an embassy staffer told him “I’m very sorry” before taking him to a room where the inside of his cheek was swabbed.

At his home, friends kept asking whether his sister had been found, then whether she had been buried, and finally why her building had blown up for no explained reason.

“How could, in America, something like this happen?” they wondered.

In late September, Adem arrived in Maryland for a memorial service at a local mosque, to see his sister buried and to visit the gravesite before returning home. “God, give her to heaven,” he prayed in a chilly cemetery two miles from the blast site.

Bitseat’s mother arrives

The nurses had told Bitseat the jarring white blotches on her forehead, cheeks and nose were mostly damage to her pigment and would heal.

During her three-week hospital stay, she was improving.

Before she was discharged, her mother had made it to Maryland with help from hospital social workers on a passport and visa.

With help from Montgomery County government, the two moved into a Days Inn in Silver Spring for two weeks, and then an apartment. As their story spread among Silver Spring churches, volunteers shuttled Bitseat to Children’s National for physical therapy.

Amid her new routine, a man she’d never met — the fourth occupant of Apartment 201 that night — came to visit.

Memar Ayalew had been taking a vacation from his PhD program in political science in Italy and was staying with his aunt and uncle at the apartment. He came home shortly before midnight Aug. 10 and sat next to his uncle, who’d fallen asleep on a sofa waiting for him. The explosion sent Ayalew flying through a blown-open sliding-glass door.

He tore a tendon in his left knee when he landed. Lost to the fire were his travel documents, two laptops and more than a year’s worth of doctoral research exploring post-election violence after democratization efforts in Ethi­o­pia and Kenya.

As Ayalew limped toward Bitseat’s new apartment building, his thoughts turned to his aunt and uncle. Why did the blast swallow them and spare him and Bitseat?

Bitseat met him outside so he wouldn’t have to walk to the second floor. They spoke for more than an hour, sitting on the grass — two survivors from an apartment where four had been.

“You and me are the luckiest people on the earth,” she told him.

Ayalew asked Bitseat what his uncle had talked to her about in the few hours she’d had with him.

Studying hard, Bitseat answered.

A new baby

Bitseat's apartment, three miles west of the blast site and full of Ethiopian immigrants, felt welcoming to her mother, who gave birth to a baby girl. She insisted that Bitseat sleep in the same room with her, hoping that might calm her daughter's vivid nightmares. "Go to sleep," her mom would whisper.

The tiny town in Oklahoma dropped out of the plans. It seemed a poor choice for a mother who spoke no English, and Bitseat had developed a circle of confidants in the nurses and therapists who knew her story.

The apartment put Bitseat, barely, within the boundaries of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, home to 2,000 students and where three-quarters head to a four-year college. Bitseat arrived there in January, wearing an oversize long-sleeved shirt that draped her forearms, hands and fingers.

During fire drills, other students joked while walking down the stairs, as anyone who had never escaped a burning building would, Bitseat realized. But in her mind all she could picture were flames as she rushed to get outside.

She dived into schoolwork, often taking a quick lunch and showing up early to her afternoon class on government. She came to know the teacher, Margit Nahra, well.

Nahra recalled a day Bitseat asked to redo an assignment on which she had a high B, below her usual work.

“It’s not going to affect your final grade,” the teacher said, explaining the B was a small fraction of the semester total.

To Bitseat that wasn’t the point.

“It’s not good enough for me,” she said.

She notched a 3.8 GPA in her first semester and is scheduled to graduate in January.

She made friends — at school, in her apartment complex and at church — and liked those who didn’t pry.

She has talked about her tragedy with only one and only briefly.

Preparing for college

Atop a desk near Bitseat’s new living room sit a laptop, five ACT prep books, two SAT prep books and a Tom Clancy novel.

These days, she tries to spend several hours a day studying for college boards and tightening her English grammar. She wants to stay in the area for college, eyeing Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. In the background, her mother cares for Bitseat's sister. They speak over Skype to her father and two other siblings.

On Monday night, Bitseat got a call from Ayalew, the PhD student blown out of Apartment 201.

He, too, had been helped by donations and volunteers in the past year. Adventist Healthcare, owners of the Maryland hospital, provided $35,000 worth of care, including knee surgery in early 2017.

The rent is covered, at least through next month. But his options seemed to be dwindling. Returning home was unlikely given his critical writings on Ethiopia’s government. And his applications for a temporary work permit, and eventually political asylum in the United States, were pending.

Bitseat talked about a noon service at her church Thursday, on the anniversary. Mekonen and Ibrahim, who had taken them into their home in Apartment 201, would be honored. Ayalew said he would go.

“Things are going to be okay,” she assured him.

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