Gas Smell Investigated in Probe of Deadly Apartment Fire

Police said an unknown number of residents remain unaccounted for

As authorities investigate the cause of a deadly explosion and fire in an apartment complex outside the nation's capital, they are looking into reports that residents smelled natural gas days before the blast. 

Two people were killed in Silver Spring, Maryland, several are missing and more than 30 were taken to hospitals for treatment. Police did not release the identities of the dead. 

The building remains a collapsed hazard, and moving the debris is a challenge, so the search effort is methodical Friday, according to the Montgomery County Fire Department. Searchers focused on a basement apartment Friday afternoon.

Firefighters used ladders to rescue people from upper floors of Flower Branch Apartments, and residents tossed children from balconies to safety below. 

Thomas Lima said he saw a boy fall into the fire and tried to rescue him but couldn't. Lima suffered smoke inhalation and a burn on his arm and was treated at Holy Cross Hospital.

Authorities accounted for 110 people so far, butan unknown number of residents remain unaccounted for, police said.

On Friday, authorities were still working to determine the cause of the blast. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was assisting the investigation.


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Resident Adrian Boya told News4's Derrick Ward he had been smelling gas for some time now. 

"I've been smelling gas for weeks. I called 911, they came and told us it smelled like incense," Boya said. "That's pretty sad. It's like they didn't take us seriously."

Joy West said she also could smell gas in the area prior to the explosion. 

"When I walk in this area, you smell gas near the corner as you approached the gas station. But it's very strong on Flower, about a block from here," West said. "I just felt, and I told the guys at the store, 'You guys be careful 'cause one day something is going to blow up around here.'"

The Montgomery County fire department responded to a call July 25 reporting the smell of gas, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett said.

Building management told Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein there were no prior reports of problems at the buildings. 

While the official cause of the fire has not been released, resident Adrian Boya told News4’s Derrick Ward he’s been smelling gas for some time now. “I’ve been smelling gas for weeks. I called 911, they came and told us it smelled like incense,” Boya said. That’s pretty sad. It’s like they didn’t take us seriously.”

"We asked that of property management first thing this morning. No prior issues concerning the buildings. No prior responses from fire/rescue at these buildings," Goldstein said. 

Goldstein said each unit has a natural gas furnace and stove.

A woman who used to work for the management office at Flower Branch Apartments said the smell of gas was a common complaint during the years she was employed there.

"Oh my God. It finally happened," said the woman, who did not want to be identified. "They would send the maintenance people to check, but I think something more needed to be done."

Hamil said the reports about the smell of gas being in the area before the explosion will be investigated.

Washington Gas crews were on the scene and shut off gas to the area. 

"Our thoughts are with the families impacted by this event. They have our support now and in the days ahead," a Washington Gas spokesman said in a statement. 

Resident Veronica Jarreto said Thursday that she felt lucky to not have been home when her apartment was destroyed. She was at a hospital with a sick child.

"We lost everything. Our home, clothes and food," she said via an interpreter.

Jarreto stood at a community center with her 11-month-old child strapped to her back and a 3-year-old alongside her.

"I'm going to stay in the shelter and, God willing, he will provide for this evening," she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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