WASHINGTON — Federal investigators will soon provide the first indication of what caused a natural gas explosion that sparked the deadly blaze at a Silver Spring apartment complex last month that killed seven people.
The National Transportation Safety Board plans to issue a preliminary report within the next week or two detailing the probable cause of the blast at the Flower Branch Apartments, an agency official told members of the Montgomery County Council, which met Tuesday to discuss the county’s response to the massive blaze.
NTSB is currently testing pieces of fire-damaged equipment, including parts of a gas regulator and a water heater, said Paul Sledzik, deputy director of the NTSB’s Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications.
In addition, NTSB investigators are reviewing photographs, conducting interviews and inspecting procedures and maintenance records kept by the gas provider, Washington Gas.
“We’re not determining fault or liability; it’s a safety investigation,” Sledzik said of the preliminary report.
The agency isn’t expected to publish a final report for at least nine months. However, if investigators uncover “critical” safety issues, the agency can issue immediate recommendations, he added.
Last month, investigators at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives confirmed that a natural gas explosion in a basement meter room was responsible for feeding the fire that destroyed two four-story apartment buildings in the complex.
Fire chief Tom Goldstein said Tuesday the fire burned for 72 minutes — as Washington Gas crews worked to shut off gas lines to the building — before firefighters could work to extinguish the flames.
During the three-hour council hearing, county leaders also provided an update on the long-term efforts to help building residents — some of whom are still staying in motels — get back on their feet.
Thirty-nine people were sent to the hospital for injuries ranging from lacerations and broken bones — sustained by residents who jumped from the burning buildings — to victims with life-threatening injuries. All have now been discharged from the hospital and are recuperating, county officials said.
A total of 63 families were displaced by the fire, and the county has promised dedicated housing case managers for the next six months “to ensure that there’s stability of housing for every single one of these households,” said Uma Ahluwalia, the county’s director of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Victims of the blast are also being offered mental health services, Ahluwahlia said, adding that some children affected by the blast are still so shaken up that routine fire drills at their schools are traumatizing.
Donations made to the Maryland Housing Partnership to help victims of the blast reached a total of $750,000, Ahluwahlia said. The donations have been used to provide direct financial benefits to displaced families, she said.
While council members praised the work of first responders, some members criticized county leaders’ communications efforts in the days and weeks that followed, which some members characterized as confusing and incomplete in the immediate aftermath of the fire.
Many of the building residents affected by the fire were nonnative English speakers.
“This is a community that is very much part of our county family,” said Council member Nancy Navarro. She said adequate language services by police, the fire department and mental health providers “shouldn’t just be a nice-to-have, it has to be an absolute mandate.
WTOP’s Kristi King contributed to this report
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