Ten people have been taken to hospitals, several people are still unaccounted for, and three buildings have been declared unsafe after an explosion, fire and building collapse in Montgomery County, Maryland, Thursday morning.
Crews put up security fencing around the perimeter and crews will remain overnight. The work will begin again Friday morning around sunrise, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Pete Piringer said.
“There are unaccounted-for people,” Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said at 3:15 p.m. He couldn’t say how many, and stressed that it’s not known why they were unaccounted for, saying they may simply be at work.
He added that three of the people taken to the hospital have serious injuries, and some 100 people have been displaced.
The explosion happened in a building at the Friendly Garden Apartments, at 2405 Lyttonsville Road in Silver Spring, at about 10:30 a.m. That building, as well as two others in the complex at 2401 and 2411 Lyttonsville Road, have been declared unsafe, Goldstein said.
The chief added that some 125 to 150 firefighters had responded to the scene. “It’s too early to speculate” on a cause, or to tell where in the building the fire started.
He said dozens of people would be displaced Thursday night and “in the near future” from the buildings.
Goldstein said there were “possible indications of alerts” by search dogs, which could indicate bodies or survivors could be in the rubble of the exploded building.
After the fire was put out, firefighters worked on “stability concerns of the building,” Goldstein said. Heavy machinery will be used to take the “high and large parts” of the building, such as the remaining walls, away so crews can continue to work.
“This is going to be a multiday event,” Goldstein said. “Our focus is to remain here until everybody is accounted for,” he added.
WTOP’s Mike Murillo, who reported from the scene, said, “It’s hard to believe that I’m looking at half of a building right now. It looks like a smoldering pile of scrap.”
“It’s just devastating, because the roof was — there’s no roof,” County Executive Marc Elrich told WTOP’s Megan Cloherty, who was also at the scene. “All the floors between the roof and the ground are gone. And all the wood that would have been the walls and floors, it was on fire in the middle. So you can’t look at that and not just be kind of devastated.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said his team has been in contact with Montgomery County officials, as well as the state fire marshal, the Maryland Department of Emergency Management, and the state police.
How to help
Elrich said Montgomery Housing Partners had set up a fund to help those in need from the fire. Rodney Crowell, director of the county Department of Health and Human Services, said that it was too early to tell what physical items people might need, so money was the best thing to donate at this point.
He added that the Housing Opportunity Commission, which owns the Paddington Square Apartments, is going through their inventory to “identify units that we can move people into.” He added that about 29 families have already registered at the Coffield Recreation Center, at 2450 Lyttonsville Road, for temporary housing. “That’s the place to go,” he said.
County Council President Gabe Albornoz added that there were trauma-informed workers at the Coffield Center “to help families process what they are going to have to see for the first time when they come home from work this afternoon.”
Montgomery County Public Schools said it will be providing housing, food and mental health counseling to affected families Thursday night and in the coming days. Staff will also work to provide families additional assistance as “they recover from this event.” Anyone wishing to help are asked to consider making a donation to Montgomery Housing Partners, the school system said.
A resident told NBC Washington there was a “heavy smell of gas” in the building when he left in the morning.
While he wouldn’t discuss possible causes, Goldstein at 1 p.m. more than once referred to the fire at the Flower Branch Apartments in 2016, which killed seven people and was caused by a gas leak. He said there hasn’t been a call for a gas leak on the block since at least Jan. 1, 2021.
Washington Gas, a utility that serves the area, said it was aware of the incident and that its personnel were assisting the fire department.
“As always, the safety of our customers and community is our top priority,” the company said in a statement to The Associated Press. “We are supporting the active investigation and do not have further details to share at this time.”
“There’s several different theories that are being worked on, and I have to leave it at that,” the chief said.
“This is obvious a really tragic event here,” Elrich said. “My sympathy goes out to all the families who have been affected. … This is a tough day.”
He said he hoped most of the residents of the building were out at work or school. “If they were at home, you gotta ask what happened to them,” Elrich said. “It’s depressing.”
Fire officials will give another update Friday at 9 a.m.
Read more in Spanish from WTOP’s news partners at Telemundo 44.
WTOP’s Mike Murillo and Megan Cloherty reported from Silver Spring, Maryland. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."