ROCKVILLE, Md. — The owner of a Rockville house that was in foreclosure and was destroyed in an early morning blast remains unaccounted for Friday evening — hours after the explosion woke neighbors and rained debris onto nearby homes, leaving one uninhabitable, fire officials said.
Ten homes and nine vehicles were also damaged in the blast that rocked the Randolph Hills neighborhood, which witnessed a similar house explosion six years ago. Residents of the most severely damaged house were staying in a hotel as on Friday night.
No injuries were reported, but fire officials don’t know whether they will find the remains of the owner inside the rubble or whether he is alive and well.
Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said that finding the owner is a key goal as the investigation into what caused the explosion continues.
Investigators have yet to enter what remains of the structure, including the basement. Work on Friday focused on making the area safe and clearing potentially dangerous items such as CO2 canisters and an array of weapons, which police carted off, Goldstein said.
Investigators would return on Saturday to continue to process the scene, scrutinizing each layer of the debris for clues about what happened and why, he said.
The one-story, brick home in the 11400 block of Ashley Drive had been in foreclosure since 2015, according to court records. And the home, worth about $340,000, was slated to be sold at auction on Friday afternoon, according to a legal notice published in The Washington Post this week and an auction listing on RealtyTrac.com.
The foreclosure is also a part of the investigation, Goldstein said.
Investigators haven’t ruled out any cause for the blast and resulting fire, including whether it was an intentional act or whether unauthorized use of natural gas could have leveled the home, he said.
The owner of the house was spotted there earlier this week, Goldstein said.
“We’re getting a lot of information from neighbors, witness accounts, rumors,” said Pete Piringer, spokesman for the fire department.
Surveillance video from a neighbor’s home captured the explosion and the house wrapped in a ball of flames.
Flames were still shooting from the home as firefighters arrived to the home at about 1 a.m.
“Units arrived on the scene where they found catastrophic damage,” Piringer said. “The home was essentially leveled.”
About 75 firefighters worked to quickly extinguish the flames.
The explosion reduced the house to a pile of bricks, and debris littered a wide area around the home. Chunks of insulation dangled from tree limbs and power lines. Window screens lay in the yard. A burned-out truck sat on the property.
WTOP listeners said they heard the blast miles away in other parts of the county.
“I was sound asleep and was awoken by a very loud, loud explosion that rattled the window,” said neighbor Paul Ricci.
“Someone ran by and said ‘a house blew up’ and then immediately it just sunk in,” Ricci said. “It was a burning hole at that point. There was no house left.”
“I could feel it underground,” said Paul’s wife, Luzia Ricci, of the explosion that rocked her neighborhood of modest, mostly one-story single family homes. “I was wondering, ‘Are we having an earthquake?’ But it was so short.”
She went outside to see what was going on and could see the flames from her backyard. She started to go closer with her daughter, but then she heard another pop and backed away.
“My husband is crazy enough to go all the way,” she said, adding he captured video of the fire.
In 2011, a home a few blocks down on Ashley Drive was destroyed in a natural gas explosion. The home’s natural gas dryer had been installed improperly, according to the fire department.
Goldstein tried to reassure residents.
“Their houses are safe, their gas services here are safe, and that should not be a concern of having natural gas in their structures here along this part of Randolph Hills or anywhere else in Montgomery County,” Goldstein said.
A neighbor’s surveillance camera captured the explosion and the ball of flames it created:
The location of Friday’s house explosion:
WTOP’s Mike Murillo, Dennis Foley, Teta Alim, Anna Isaacs and The Associated Press contributed to this report.