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 rescue crews Thursday were still 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,” said Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein. “Everybody was getting out of the building as rapidly as possible.”
Goldstein said during a briefing around 6:20 a.m. that a K-9 team searching the rubble of the apartment complex had a “hit” in a particular location. Goldstein said it could indicate someone is trapped in the location.
Investigators also sought to determine the cause of the inferno that began late Wednesday at the buildings, called 8701 and 8703. Relatives of missing residents anxiously waited at the scene for news of their loved ones.
“We are operating this as a rescue,” Goldstein said. “There are unaccounted-for occupants within the structure.”
County 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.
Fire department spokesman Pete Piringer said in a tweet that 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.
Howard Richards said firefighters arrived on the scene shortly after midnight, near the intersection of Piney Branch Road and Arliss Street. The fire began just before midnight and 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.
Firefighters faced heavy fire conditions and parts of a collapsed building as they worked at apartment buildings in the 8600 and 8700 blocks of Piney Branch Road, Piringer said.
Goldstein 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 safely turn off gas to the building.
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.
Shots from TV news helicopters over the scene showed a gaping hole in the buildings where the explosion occurred.
Willie Morales, a resident of the apartment complex, was walking across Piney Branch Road from a chicken restaurant when he collapsed to the ground on his stomach in fear from the loudest explosion he ever heard.
“It was one big boom, like nothing I’d ever heard,” Morales said. When he decided it was safe to rise to his feet, he saw flames coming from the basement and first floor of the apartment building in front of him.
Morales said he tried to bang on windows and to tell people to get out. He said he was screaming: “Fire! Fire! You have to get out!” in English and Spanish. “I tried to knock on the door and windows,” he said. “I’ve never seen a fire like this in my life.”
A gas company was on the scene and workers controlled the gas-fed fire, Piringer said. By about 1:45 a.m., firefighters had knocked down most of the fire, but the flames continued to smolder into the daylight hours.
Those who fled the fire stood in grassy areas of nearby apartments and on sidewalks, and in bus shelters as parents held onto small children. Some onlookers took videos and pictures with their cell phones of the massive emergency response. A huge plume of gray smoke billowed from at least one burning building.
At least one ladder truck and other ladders were seen up against nearby apartment buildings. Other firefighters attacked the blaze from the ground level outside of the buildings.
Goldstein said commuters should expect delays in the area because Piney Branch Road and Arliss Avenue 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.
Authorities have set up a temporary shelter at the nearby Long Branch Recreation Centerfor the people who have been displaced. Reports said dozens of people were at the shelter.