WASHINGTON — Emergency crews recovered two bodies from the rubble of the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland, Thursday afternoon after an explosion and three-alarm fire tore through the apartment complex in the overnight hours.
The victims have not yet been identified, and several other people believed to reside in the apartments are still unaccounted for, Montgomery County Police Assistant Chief Russ Hamill told reporters during a Thursday news conference.
Police are now trying to identify and locate all residents of the building and have asked anyone with that information to contact Montgomery County police by dialing 311. People with information who live outside the county can call 240-777-0311.
In the initial hours after the explosion, fire officials said five to seven people were missing, although during the Thursday news conference they declined to provide an update on the number of apartment residents still unaccounted for.
More than 30 residents taken to the hospital
The cause of the explosion and the blaze — the sequence of events is still unclear — remains under investigation. Hamill said police Thursday afternoon were not prepared to discuss any causes of the incident and that detectives couldn’t even enter the building until it could be shored up.
Fire crews and police were called to the Flower Branch Apartments, two four-story apartment buildings at 8701 and 8703 Piney Branch Rd., near University Boulevard, shortly before midnight on Wednesday.
Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Division Chief David Steckel said “multiple rescues” were made at the scene. Residents described people trapped on balconies and one witness said he saw a man tossing a baby to people on the ground. Emergency crews took 31 residents to hospitals with various injuries, as well as three firefighters with minor injuries, said Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Division Chief David Steckel.
Debris from the explosion was blown across the street, damaging other buildings.
The building at 8701 partially collapsed, according to fire officials. Steckel said Thursday it remained in “extremely dangerous condition.”
Cause of explosion, blaze still unknown
Fire investigators have been interviewing residents to try to determine the sequence of events before and after the blaze. It’s not known yet whether the explosion or the fire came first. The ATF is also taking part in the investigation.
Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said there had not been any reports of the odor of natural gas before the explosion, although residents told reporters they did smell natural gas Wednesday night. Firefighters responded to calls about a gas smell at the apartment complex on July 25, said Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett.
The buildings have natural gas furnaces in each unit, and a gas cooktop in each unit. The building did not have washer or dryer equipment.
Hamill said police have no “leading theory” about what caused the explosion.
Piney Branch Road and Arliss Road were expected to remain closed for the rest of the day, and about 90 displaced residents had taken shelter at the nearby Long Branch Community Center. Family reunification at the community center will end at 8 p.m. Thursday and resume Friday at 8 a.m., according to a Montgomery County tweet.
“A lot of these folks are shellshocked,” said Chuck Chrisostomo, of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. “There were some scary moments.”
County councilman Tom Hucker says that Red Cross staff at the community center are logging in the contact information for anyone who shows up there. If you’re looking for someone, that’s the place to go, he said.
The community center says all regular classes, programs and activities scheduled for Thursday have been canceled.
— Nick Iannelli (@NickWTOP) August 11, 2016
WTOP’s Kristi King, Jack Moore, Rick Massimo, Nick Iannelli, Dennis Foley, Keara Dowd, Teta Alim and Neal Augenstein contributed to this report.