At least 10 people were taken to hospitals, and several more are missing, after an explosion and fire obliterated apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland, Thursday morning, officials said.
Flames consumed a building at the Friendly Garden Apartments on Lyttonsville Road about 10:30 a.m. after an enormous boom alarmed residents throughout the area.
“The first thing was that big boom. I could actually feel it on my back, and it made me come out of my work shed,” said Andre Kinard, who lives across the street from the apartment complex. “That’s when I saw everything to smithereens, and then the first two or three people screaming.”
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Three people were seriously hurt and seven others have injuries ranging from "moderate to minor," Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said at an afternoon news conference. Goldstein said "several" people were unaccounted for, but he couldn't give an exact number.
Three of the apartment complex's six buildings were declared unsafe, and about 100 residents of those buildings are displaced, Goldstein said. The chief said he hoped to be able to allow residents of the other three buildings back inside their homes by the evening.
The Red Cross is helping all displaced residents with shelter and necessities. Montgomery County officials encouraged anyone who wants to help the residents to donate here.
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"This is a big set back. These are affordable housing units. These aren't people that've got the wherewithal to pick up and just say, 'Hey, I'll go on with my life.' This is gonna be a real serious impact," Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said.
By the early evening, firefighters were still actively searching for anyone who could be stuck in the rubble but were limited to certain areas due to safety concerns. Crews brought in heavy machinery and knocked down an unstable freestanding wall to help in the search.
Goldstein said there were “possible indications of alerts” by search dogs, which could indicate bodies or survivors.
Some witnesses said they smelled gas around the time of the explosion. Goldstein said the fire department had not received any calls about gas concerns or gas leaks at the apartment complex since Jan. 1, 2021.
Video, which can be seen in the video player above, shows the vibration of the explosion. The rumble sounds as though a rocket blasted off. Then a massive gray cloud of debris with bright orange flames shooting through it takes over an entire section of the building from ground to roof. When the sound of the explosion stops, it's replaced by a woman's screams.
Kinard's son, Steven Inman, had just returned from the gym and was preparing meals in his family’s house nearby when he heard and felt a powerful explosion, he said. He ran outside and saw the collapsed building.
“The first thing I saw was a woman and her child, screaming, saying that she can’t get out,” he recounted. “I told her, ‘Try to climb out.’ Then I saw the infant. So I was like, ‘Just throw me the baby. Don’t worry — I’ll catch her.’ I caught the baby.”
More than two hours after the explosion, up to 150 fire personnel continued to battle “deep fire," Goldstein said, and searches for survivors were ongoing.
"It was kind of horrifying. I mean, when you look at a building and see it gutted with the walls down and all the debris piled up, all I could think is, 'What happened to the people?' Hopefully, they're at work. If they were home, you got to ask yourself, like, what happened to them?" Elrich said.
One section of the building was gone, leveled into a pile of blackened, smoldering wreckage. Images show a brick corner of the building standing in front of ruins. Goldstein said crews were able to help some people escape before the building was consumed by fire and collapsed.
The roof blew off from another section of the building, exposing residents' homes. Chopper4 footage shows debris including personal items, window screens, bed frames, a bathtub and building materials strewn around. The debris extended 50 to 70 feet from the building, Chopper4 reporter Brad Freitas said.
Firefighters rescued several people and could be seen using cherry pickers to pull people from upper-level windows. Others sprayed water onto the smoldering apartments from above.
The fire was so powerful that Freitas said he could feel its heat through the helicopter's windows.
Medics could be seen wheeling people away on stretchers.
A young man who said he lived in the building fought tears as he looked at the wreckage. He held the hand of a woman being taken away on a stretcher.
"I've still got friends trapped in the building,” T.J. Hall said, beginning to cry.
Hall said he left the building earlier Thursday and had smelled something.
“When I left this morning, I told my grandma, ‘It smells like gas,’” Hall said.
Goldstein says it's too early to know what caused the explosion and fire.
Utility companies Pepco and Washington Gas were on the scene, Goldstein said, along with representatives from all Montgomery County agencies.
A man who lives nearby said he heard and felt a powerful explosion. He thought it was an earthquake or that something had hit his house.
“All of the sudden, I felt this boom,” Larry Stewart said. He went outside, saw the horrific fire and heard screaming.
“These are really good people around here. People from all over the world live in this building,” Kinard said. “I hope that we didn’t leave anybody behind.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said his office has been in touch with Montgomery County officials and offered assistance from the state's first responders.
"Please keep all those involved, including our first responders, in your prayers," Hogan said on Twitter.
Elrich said the county would support the residents "as long as necessary."
"They can't just pick up and go and find another place. We know there's an absolute shortage of affordable housing to start with. So, there's not another place you can just pop these people into. So, we're going to support them as long as it takes with whatever resources that it takes to do it," Elrich said.
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, of Maryland, said in a tweet that he was “profoundly concerned” by the fire.
D.C. Fire and EMS and the Prince George's County Fire and EMS Department assisted in the response.
The site of the explosion is about four miles from where an explosion and fire at the Flower Branch apartments in Silver Spring killed two children and five adults in August 2016. More than 60 people were injured, including three firefighters.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined a failed mercury service regulator and unconnected vent line led to a natural gas leak that accumulated in the building's meter room until it exploded.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.