Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, said all residents of the Friendly Garden Apartments have been accounted for the day after a massive blast and fire reduced one of the buildings to rubble and sent more than a dozen people to the hospital.
However, two different dogs trained to detect human remains have twice alerted to the same spot in the rubble of the Silver Spring apartment blast Friday, and crews will have to complete a search of the ruins by hand before they can know for certain if it’s a false alarm.
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“We want to rule out that there was somebody on the exterior of the building that was in front of the building at the time of the blast. Until we’re down to the bare ground, and all the debris is removed, we can’t rule that point out,” Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said during a news conference Friday afternoon.
The fire chief said the canine units are specifically trained to alert to the presence of human remains, but it’s possible they’re being thrown off by clothing or other objects.
Overall, the blast sent 14 people to the hospital with injuries. Seven people remain in the hospital as of Friday afternoon, including two children, Goldstein said.
On Friday, lawmakers in Annapolis recognized the actions of the firefighters, as the state senate passed a bill on peer support for firefighters.
“As a state and country in the midst of pretty uncertain times globally, that we look to find the angels. And the angels are those who are running into the building to save others. And so, they’re what give us hope to keep on going,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said.
Cut gas line
The fire chief said investigators combing through the rubble have found a cut gas line in the basement of the apartment building.
Authorities are investigating the possibility that the gas line was cut by a maintenance worker doing plumbing work. The worker was injured in the blast and taken to the hospital.
Earlier Friday, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said “human error” may have contributed to the fire that destroyed the building.
However, the fire chief said that is only a theory at this point and investigators still don’t know the source of the ignition, meaning what specifically caused the fire to start, he said.
“We don’t have the ability to connect that it was a human error that caused the explosion,” Goldstein said. “We have a cut gas pipe in the basement. … We’re still working (multiple) theories.”
The building was constructed in 1971, and there were no mercury regulators in the structure — a piece of equipment that was faulted in the deadly 2016 Flower Branch apartment explosion, also in Silver Spring.
Since 2013, there have been just two gas leaks at the apartment complex reported to the fire department, according to Goldstein. The most recent was in 2017.
“The most important issue to identify to everybody in our community: If you smell gas, exit the building, then call 911,” Goldstein said.
For now, county police and fire and rescue services are jointly investigating the blast with assistance from federal authorities.
“Until we know what caused the explosion, the lead agency is not determined,” Goldstein told reporters during an earlier news conference Friday.
Following the Flower Branch apartment explosion in Silver Spring, which killed seven people, the National Transportation Safety Board took the lead in the investigation, because the cause was determined to be related to gas transmission lines.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the building destroyed in the explosion was last inspected by the fire department on Feb. 2 and underwent its full triannual inspection process by the county’s permitting authorities in September 2021.
“These buildings were inspected for both building code and for fire safety,” he said.
There was a period of about a year when county workers did not perform in-person building inspections because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Elrich said they had restarted in 2021.
More than 200 displaced
All told, about 225 residents were displaced, officials said — more than 100 from the buildings that were either destroyed or damaged in the blast and others from nearby buildings that lost power because of a damaged transformer.
Crews are hoping to restore power to the three buildings that are OK for residents to re-occupy. The other buildings have been deemed unsafe.
Residents of the building that sustained the blast, 2405 Lyttonsville Road, will likely not be able to go back to retrieve belongings “any time soon,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein said there are plans to either escort residents of the other buildings that were deemed unsafe — buildings 2401 and 2411 — to retrieve belongings or to have fire and rescue crews retrieve them.
Mary Anderson, the public information officer for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, said about 15 families have registered to stay at the emergency shelter at the White Oak recreation center — up from only two or three families the first night.
Residents who need immediate service, such as medications, who are not able to get to the White Oak center can call or text 240-447-2693.
Donations to a fund set up by the Montgomery Housing Partnership to help residents have already topped $360,000 as of Friday afternoon, Anderson said.
Disbursements from that fund are expected to start Monday, she said.
WTOP’s Valerie Bonk, Kyle Cooper reported from Silver Spring. WTOP’s Kate Ryan reported from Annapolis.