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Natural gas explosion led to Silver Spring apt. fire, ATF says

Crews with canine unit focus on a corner of the Flower Branch apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland. An explosion and fire tore through the apartment complex in the late night hours of Aug. 10. At least five people died in the blast, police said Aug. 14. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)

WASHINGTON — A natural gas explosion in a basement meter room was the cause of a three-alarm fire that engulfed a Silver Spring apartment complex last week and killed seven people, officials confirmed Friday.

The natural gas fed the blaze that consumed the buildings, said Daniel Board, the head of the Baltimore field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, during a Friday morning news conference.

There is no indication that a criminal act occurred, Board said.

Montgomery County Assistant Police Chief Russ Hamill said authorities have identified through DNA three of the seven sets of remains recovered from the wreckage of the Flower Branch apartments.

The following people have been positively identified:

  • Augusto Jimenez Sr., 62
  • Maria Auxiliadorai Castellon-Martinez, 53
  • Saul Paniagua, 65

Hamill said he couldn’t provide a timeline for when the four remaining remains would be positively identified, although police had previously released the names of the missing people who are now presumed dead.

“Everybody involved with that process is working extremely diligently,” he said of the DNA identification process. “We understand the agony of the families. We understand the daily toll this takes on them.”

No additional victims are expected to be found in the rubble, Hamill said.

The Aug. 10 explosion and fire injured 40 others and displaced about 100 residents of the complex, who sheltered by the Red Cross at a nearby community center.

Board said the meter room where the explosion occurred was in the apartment building at 8701 Piney Branch Road. Investigators found no incendiary device in the location of the “blast seat,” Board said, and there was no indication of unauthorized access to the meter room.

ATF’s investigation included over 100 witness interviews, reviewing surveillance video, reconstructing the gas meter lines and “digging by hand through four stories of charred debris,” Board said.

ATF is still trying to figure out what ignited the gas, Board said.

“From the site of the explosion itself, we’re trying to find out what ignited or caused or started that explosion, as in the specific incident or specific item from inside that room.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, which announced Wednesday it would open its own probe into the blast, is now taking charge of the investigation, Montgomery County officials said.

Residents of the apartment had reportedly smelled the odor of natural gas in the weeks before the explosion. Montgomery County fire officials said the fire department received a call on July 25 about the odor of natural gas in the vicinity of the apartment. Acting fire chief Alan Hinde said crews responded with gas-detecting meters to survey the building and reported no positive results.

Ravi Chhatre, a senior pipeline investigator, is leading the NSTB review. He previously led the investigation of a 2014 gas explosion in East Harlem, New York, that leveled two buildings and killed eight people.

Chhatre said it could take up to a year before the agency’s probe is complete.

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