An advocacy group announced Wednesday they are filing lawsuits against Washington Gas and a management company on behalf of the victims of the devastating explosion in August at an apartment building in Maryland.
"It's not just about money. This actually is about justice," CASA Executive Director Gustavo Torres said.
The blast at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland, killed seven people, including two children, and left dozens injured. CASA has said that more than 30 residents were injured and dozens now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
On Wednesday, Torres sharply criticized the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for the lack of information released on the investigation.
"Seven people died, but no one is saying who is responsible for this," Torres said.
He said the group believes that Washington Gas was the entity responsible for the gas lines, and the community's management company, Kay Apartment Communities, had a duty to residents.
"We truly believe that Washington Gas and Kay Management are responsible for these seven dead and many people [who] have been injured," Torres said.
Victims had previously said they intended to file a lawsuit, but Wednesday was the first time that CASA announced whom they intended to sue. Torres did not say how much compensation would be sought.
Victims said the explosion changed their lives dramatically. One resident said he has been forced to use a wheelchair after the blast. Solomon Weldemariam said he fled with only the clothes on his back.
"Everything lost. I don't have anything ... no documentation, my passport, my social security, my naturalization certificate," he said.
Resident Maria Escobar said the lawsuits were not only about the money.
"We are here fighting this lawsuit to fight for our dignity, but also to fight to improve our community and make it better and safer," she said via an interpreter.
Authorities have said that natural gas was a factor in the blast that involved two buildings at the apartment complex. However, investigators have said they were still trying to determine what caused the gas explosion.
"If this happened in a rich neighborhood, you know what?" Torres said Wednesday. "We would have an answer immediately."
Residents of the apartment complex told News4 that they had long complained of a smell of gas around the apartments, which each have a natural gas furnace and stove.
"They were sleeping in the car for a while," one resident told News4 in the wake of the blast. "Now they've returned to the apartments, but they're afraid to turn the gas stove on. They're afraid to cook."
Residents and CASA are asking Kay Apartment Communities to meet with them to discuss the condition of the remaining buildings.
"We have been sending letters. We have been rallying in front of the offices to request a meeting and we still have not had that meeting yet," Torres said.
Kay said in a statement that they were working with CASA to agree on terms for the next meeting. The company said it could not comment further because of the pending lawsuits.