After deadly fire, Bethesda house’s tunnels still a mystery, possible danger

BETHESDA, Md. — Months after firefighters discovered tunnels under a fire-damaged Bethesda home, Montgomery County officials don’t know whether the area around it is safe. And a contentious back-and-forth with the homeowner has blocked anyone from assessing what’s going on underground.

County experts who could assess the risk cannot legally access the home on Danbury Road, county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said.

The home is uninhabited and closed off, he said. And investigators are prevented from confirming how many tunnels there are, how wide or deep they run, what direction they are going or what their intended purpose was.

Amid all this uncertainty, there’s a fear that the tunnels could affect the safety of neighboring properties. The tunnels could be innocuous, or they could pose a danger for a variety of reasons — for example, their proximity to a gas line.

“The feeling is, it’s probable that they’ve undermined the structure of the house,” Lacefield said. “We don’t know that for sure until we get in. We can’t know precisely where the tunnels start and where they stop until we get in and begin to take some of that stuff down.”

The Department of Permitting Services is the lead agency. But according to multiple sources, no one has been able to assess the situation.

Prompted by neighbors’ 911 calls the afternoon of Sept. 10, 2017, firefighters responded to a fire at the residence and found the body of Askia Khafra, 21, in the basement. Police have since said Khafra was hired to dig the tunnels. The homeowner, Daniel Beckwitt, escaped the fire. A medical examiner recently ruled Khafra died of smoke inhalation and thermal injuries, but it has yet to rule in the manner of his death, but depending on that outcome, charges could be filed.

Police cannot legally go into the house without a search warrant issued by the state’s attorney’s office, which is still investigating whether there is probable cause that a crime was committed.

“We don’t know the extent of the tunnels and we don’t know what danger may exist,” said Montgomery County police Capt. Paul Starks.

In a Jan. 10 letter to Beckwitt obtained by WTOP, Diane Schwartz Jones, the director of the Department of Permitting Services, referred a December notice of unsafe building and an order of demolition.

“The condition of the premises cannot remain as it is,” Schwartz Jones wrote.

The letter dictates to the homeowner that permits are required to do any remediation on the excavation beneath the home which requires professional expertise. If the homeowner cannot show a plan to safely and professionally remediate the situation to the county, the letter said, further enforcement will take place.

“The subsurface conditions constitute dangerous and hazardous conditions,” Schwartz Jones wrote.

The homeowner has been given what Lacefield called “one last chance” to work with the county.

“If necessary, we’re prepared to go to court to make sure remediation we feel is appropriate to the site is actually done,” he said.

Montgomery County police continue to investigate the case, and their counterparts in the Fire Department told WTOP that they have concluded their portion of the investigation.

The tunnels or excavation did not impede the fight against the fire, Montgomery County Fire Chief Dan Ogren previously told WTOP, but said an ignited gas line certainly did. Crews had to dig up the front yard of the home to access the line and stop the gas flow.

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