A massive explosion and fire leveled a Silver Spring apartment complex with a blast that could be felt a mile away, injuring more than 30 people, including three firefighters , and forcing nearly 100 people from two buildings with some residents tossing their children from windows.
Authorities reported no fatalities, but crews shifted into search mode on Thursday morning, seeking to account for five to seven residents of the two adjacent buildings at the Flower Branch Apartments on Piney Branch Road . Authorities said there were 14 units in each building.
“ People were dropping children and jumping out of other windows ,” Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said of the fire. “Everybody was getting out of the building as rapidly as possible.”
Goldstein said during a morning briefing that a K-9 team searching the rubble of the apartment complex had a “hit.” Goldstein said it could indicate someone is trapped in the debris.
Investigators including the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms sought to determine the cause of the inferno that began late Wednesday at the buildings, called 8701 and 8703, which were flattened to street level in some places. It was unclear whether the fire or explosion occurred first.
The blast blew a gaping hole in parts of the buildings, showering fragments of wood, glass and bricks at least 50 yards and echoing up to a mile away. The scene resembled a bomb blast with clothing hanging from nearby trees and shoes scattered in the street.
Montgomery County Fire Battalion chief Dorcus Howard Richards said several of those injured were transported to local hospitals. The residents’ injuries ranged from minor to serious, Goldstein said. Some had respiratory injuries from smoke , and others had burns and fractures from jumping out of windows. The firefighters suffered minor injuries.
By 7 a.m., Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring said 11 patients had been treated and released after suffering minor injuries.
About 160 firefighters and EMS workers, from Montgomery County and beyond, were on the scene at the mass casualty incident. Firefighters made many rescues of people trapped inside an apartment, he added. By Thursday morning, some firefighters lay in the road next to the apartment building, exhausted from their efforts.
Howard Richards said firefighters arrived on the scene shortly after midnight, near the intersection of Piney Branch Road and Arliss Street. The fire quickly grew from two to three alarms. She said firefighters in a nearby station heard the explosion.
“It ’s going to be a long, extended investigation to figure out what caused this fire,” Howard Richards said.
Goldstein, the fire chief , said that there were natural gas furnaces and stoves in each of the units, but authorities don’t know what might have caused the blaze. It took at least an hour and 45 minutes for the fire be brought under control with the assistance of Washington Gas helping to turn off gas to the building.
He said building managers and the fire department had not received reports of problems before the blast and fire occurred.
A debris field outside the collapsed buildings extended about 50 yards to a parking lot across the street, and included shattered glass , bricks , concrete and wood. The debris appeared to include an apartment door that was sitting on a knoll and the smell of burning wood still hung in the air Thursday morning.
Howard Richards said the fire department was working with apartment managers to determine the names of residents of each affected apartment and confirm they were accounted for. She said it was too early to say the missing residents were dead, because some may have been out of town, working a nightshift or otherwise away.
Goldstein said commuters should expect delays in the area because Piney Branch Road and Arliss Street are expected to be blocked for most of the day. Firefighters began to allow residents from surrounding buildings back inside, but power remained out in the area.
“The daylight will make our operation safer,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein said the fire department will bring in heavy equipment to shore up the damage buildings and sift through the rubble.
Silver Spring, Maryland is about 6 miles (10 km) north of Washington D.C.
Washington Gas spokesman Jim Monroe declined to say if the utility company had gotten calls about smells or gas leaks at the building or if any problems had been reported before the fire.
“We are supporting the investigation,” he said. “Information will be shared publicly at the appropriate time.”
Monroe said Washington Gas is providing that information to local, state and federal officials “in support of their determination of cause.”