A day after an explosion and fire tore through the Potomac Oaks Condominium building in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Wednesday morning, officials have recovered a body from the rubble.
Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service and Montgomery County police held a news conference Thursday afternoon and said that they found a body by the front of the building. Police Chief Marcus Jones said police are looking into the possibility of a “criminal, intentional act.”
“Due to the fact that one body has been located in the apartment building of note, this now involves Montgomery County police Major Crimes Division, along with our continued work with the Montgomery County Fire Rescue Fire Marshal’s unit. Therefore, we are looking based upon information, preliminarily, we are looking at this event for a criminal investigation,” Jones said.
The unit in question is in building 826, one of two buildings — the other being 828 — on Quince Orchard Boulevard that sustained significant damage and partially collapsed. Two other buildings, connected to those two, were initially evacuated over concerns they have structural damage.
Jones said there is still a lot of evidence to go through, and police are led to believe that “we need to look at this as a criminal act.”
Officials did not identify the body and did not confirm whether the person was a resident, visitor or family member. The body will be taken to the medical examiner’s office in Baltimore. Jones said crews have not stopped searching for other potential victims.
Earlier Thursday, officials said they were trying to make contact with the owner of one unit — which is located in one of the buildings that partially collapsed — and did not know whether anyone else was there at the time of the blast, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Chief Scott Goldstein said. It’s common for condo owners to lease their units to others.
1 still hospitalized
Officials slightly revised the count of those hurt, saying a total of 14 people were injured. Of the 10 people hospitalized, two adults were initially listed in critical condition.
However, as of Thursday morning, everyone has been released from the hospital, except for one man, whose condition has been upgraded to stable, Goldstein said.
The blast happened about 8:40 a.m. Wednesday in a row of garden-style condos in the 800 block of Quince Orchard Boulevard. Neighbors and residents reported hearing a massive boom and seeing debris, heavy smoke and flames.
The complex was built in 1967, the fire chief said, and is constructed of large, heavy concrete slabs, which pancaked in the explosion.
Cause still unknown
There is still no word on the cause of the explosion.
“We have parts of the building that we still need to search through. Parts of the building that we need to still remove debris and work to verify that there are no other unaccounted for occupants or no other personnel found in the building,” Goldstein said.
The fire chief said responding firefighters encountered a gas-fed fire in the basement of one of the units following the blast, but he stressed it’s too soon to say that’s what caused the blast.
“We can’t say that this was a gas explosion or a gas leak,” Goldstein said, adding, “It is extraordinarily too early for us to say that that was the initial event that created the emergency that we have here.”
To determine the cause, investigators will have to comb through the rubble and identify all possible ignition sources, Goldstein said. Each unit had gas cooktop stoves, which will have to be retrieved from the blast area, and there were gas dryers in common laundry rooms.
“We want to focus on all sources of ignition, all possibilities of what initiated a fire what initiated a leak, what initiated the explosion,” Goldstein said.
Officials previously said there were no 911 calls earlier Wednesday morning reporting the smell of gas. A 911 call was placed on Sept. 22 for a gas leak involving a stove in a unit in building 826, Goldstein said.
Around the time of the blast, a crew working behind the 826 building had excavated part of the parking lot working on water pipes that feed steam heat boilers, the fire chief, but he said, so far, investigators do not believe that work had anything to do with the blast.
“They have been clearly a part of our investigation, but they’re not a concern at this moment,” Goldstein said, saying investigators don’t believe that that the crew struck a gas line.
Several dozen people are believed to have been displaced. The four buildings declared off-limits by fire and rescue crews — including the two that partially collapsed — contained a total of 24 units.
Residents are being provided assistance at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park, across from Gaithersburg High School. A total of 12 families — 34 people — checked in with the shelter on Wednesday, but the number was expected to grow.
In addition, the group Montgomery Housing Partners is collecting cash donations for families.
This is the third explosion in a residential building in Montgomery County since 2016.
Earlier this year, 14 people were hospitalized after an explosion and fire at the Friendly Garden Apartments on Lyttsonville Road in Silver Spring.
In that case, investigators said a maintenance worker doing plumbing work inadvertently cut a gas line.
In 2016, seven people were killed in a massive early-morning explosion at the Flower Branch apartments, also in Silver Spring. A faulty piece of equipment, known as a mercury service regulator, was cited as a cause of that blast.
Goldstein said the gas regulator at the Potomac Oaks Condominium building is a “sprog spring regulator.”
“We have had visual assessment by Washington Gas personnel of the regulator and the meter in … building 826. It has been confirmed that it is a Sprog spring regulator … that is not a mercury gas regulator,” Goldstein said.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich told reporters it’s too soon to connect the explosions.
“When we find out the cause, we see if there’s a thread that links all three incidents but right now you’ve got two incidents with no thread between them,” Elrich said. “I don’t know that this third one will produce a thread.”