The bodies of the fourth and fifth victims were found at a Silver Spring apartment complex that was nearly leveled in a powerful explosion Wednesday night, Montgomery County police said Sunday, and they are looking for at least three more people who may remain trapped in the rubble.
None of the bodies recovered had been identified by Sunday.
Authorities also released the names of eight people who are unaccounted for since the explosion, which left at least five dead, more than 30 injured and about 100 displaced.
Officials from local and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said they have not determined the cause of the blast and fire. But last week, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said natural gas may have been a contributing factor.
As crews tackled a fourth day of searching in the debris, authorities said progress continued to be hindered by the excessive heat. Sunday marked the third straight day of record heat in the region as temperatures in Washington hit at least 100, according to The Post’s Capital Weather Gang. The oppressive weather was expected to continue Monday.
“Because of those conditions it’s been challenging to get all the answers,” Leggett said at a Sunday morning news conference. “We continue to ask for patience and understanding. This was a horrific event, followed with some challenges due to unsafe conditions as well as this heat that we are experiencing.”
As the investigation and recovery effort continues, attention is shifting to finding long-term help, such as permanent housing, for the up to 60 households that are in need of shelter, county and community leaders said.
The blast, just before midnight Wednesday, rocked a block and sent debris flying hundreds of feet. It took until Thursday evening for investigators to stabilize the building and recover and remove two bodies. The body of a third victim was found Friday. The fourth was found Saturday, and the fifth was found Sunday.
The missing range in age from 3 to 65. They are: Saul Paniagua, 65; Saeda Ibrahim, 41; Fernando Josue Hernadez Orellana, 3; Deibi Samir Lainez Moralez, 8; Augusto Jimenez Sr., 62; Maria Castellon, 53; and Aseged Mekonen, 34.
Authorities said they also have reason to believe another man could have been in the building although no one has reported him missing. They identified the man as Oscar Armando Ochoa, 55. It was unclear whether Ochoa lived in the building or only frequented it.
Assistant Police Chief Russ Hamill said that because of the conditions, authorities have not been able to identify the race, age or gender of the bodies recovered. He said they believe the five bodies are some of the eight reported missing.
“I am still hoping for a miracle,” said Augusto Jimenez Jr., who is among those who have been enduring a painful wait, unable to find their family members and fearing them buried in the wreckage.
As the days pass, he said he fears his parents, Maria Castellon and Augusto Jimenez Sr., did not make it out of the apartment where they had lived 16 years.
“I don’t wish this pain to anybody,” he said in Spanish. “I know that we are all destined to die, but not in these circumstances.”
The complex sits off Piney Branch Road, near University Boulevard, in a neighborhood with a large immigrant population.
Many of the displaced residents are immigrants, most of them Spanish-speakers. Officials also have been challenged to provide services to a number of people from Guatemala who speak indigenous dialects. In addition, some of the neighborhood’s residents are believed to be in the country illegally, and officials fear that their immigration status might prevent them from seeking help.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), who toured the site Saturday, reassured families that the state would support them no matter their immigration status.
Dozens of families lost all of their possessions in the explosion and fire. Local nonprofits, faith groups and county agencies have been assisting them, aided by government officials from Central American countries. Local businesses and residents have provided donations, and hundreds of people have volunteered to help in what officials have called “extraordinary solidarity.”
Outside the Long Branch Community Center, where displaced residents have been sheltered, children played Sunday morning while vehicles pulled up to the building with donations including food and clothing. Inside, volunteers served the families food, while others played with the youngsters.
County and community leaders said they expect the recovery effort will be a long process and urged people to continue to volunteer and bring support in coming weeks.
“We have families who lost everything, and the needs to replace everything are extraordinary,” said Montgomery County Council Member Marc Elrich (D-At Large). “People are going to be struggling with everything from how do I deal with my next rent and my next deposit to how to get clothes and furniture. It is a lot of expense [for] people with very little means.”
Officials said they are no longer accepting goods, but they are asking people to donate money . As many as 60 people, many of them young children, are getting help at the shelter. Authorities said they hope to have residents placed in permanent housing within weeks.
“Yes, right now we need to resolve the crisis, but we need to think about the long-term strategy in terms of housing, training and job opportunity because that is the only way they will be able to move forward from this poverty they are facing right now,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, which is working with the county on a plan.
“We don’t want them to stay here,” he said. “We want them to have a permanent home.”
The apartment complex is 60 years old. When the building was last inspected, in 2013, authorities found more than 500 violations. They indicated conditions such as overcrowding and inoperative smoke detectors.
Records showed that the violations were fixed by August 2013.
Kay Apartment Communities, which manages the complex, Flower Branch Apartments, has not responded to questions about living conditions. The company said in an email last week that those who could respond were busy helping those left homeless by the explosion.
The company posted a statement on its website Sunday saying, “We are continuing to cooperate with authorities on the investigation and to provide support to all residents who have been displaced.”
Lizeth Lacayo, 34, and her husband, Gustavo Zuniga, 42, recounted their escape from the flames to friends who were visiting them at the community center Sunday morning.
“I am still in shock,” said Lacayo, who said she hasn’t slept since the night of the explosion. “I still can’t get over what happened.”
Lacayo said she smelled gas before the explosion Wednesday night but after checking their kitchen and finding nothing, the couple went to bed.
“I turned the light off and suddenly the explosion and our bed went down,” Zuniga said in Spanish. They said their floor fell two levels and their bed ended up on the first floor.
“It’s a miracle we are alive,” Zuniga said. “It’s like God’s hand took us out.”
Zuniga, a waiter, was treated for burns to his right foot. Lacayo, a hair stylist, made it out with bruises to her arms and legs. The couple had lived in the building for nine years.
“I see what’s left of the building and then see my body and I can’t believe I am alive,” Lacayo said.
Residents said they are waiting to learn the cause of the explosion, but some are already speculating that it’s the result of negligence, noting reports only days earlier about a gas odor.
Officials said that on the night of July 25, firefighters were called to investigate the smell of gas at one of the complex’s buildings. Logs show that personnel could not verify the smell and left the scene. Leggett has said authorities are looking into that call.
“They didn’t care about it. They only cared about collecting the rent,” Lacayo said. “We reported problems in the apartment, it took them months to make repairs.”
Faiz Siddiqui and Martin Weil contributed to this report.