The flash fire and subsequent explosion at Friendly Garden Apartments on Laytonsville Road in Silver Spring on March 3 was ruled accidental and was caused by an apartment maintenance worker cutting a gas pipe he thought to be a plumbing drain pipe, according to the Montgomery County Fire Chief. Scott Goldstein.
Also, Goldstein said, of the 14 people taken to the hospital, all but two were discharged. One of them, still hospitalized, is in critical condition. The other is being treated for a medical problem unrelated to the explosion which caused the displacement of 41 families with a total of 124 adults and 36 children.
Since Thursday, power has been restored to three buildings and residents have returned. In two other buildings, 2411 and 2401, residents were able to return to collect their important personal effects. Residents of building 2405, where the explosion and fire occurred, will be escorted to their apartments on Tuesday.
Those buildings won’t be habitable “for weeks,” Goldstein said.
According to Goldstein, a maintenance worker went to apartment 101 to fix a clogged drain. The maintenance man then went to the basement, just below this apartment, and cut a gas pipe that was one and a half inches in diameter. The maintenance worker used a snake to clean up the debris, then plugged the pipe, not knowing it was a gas pipe, Goldstein said.
Here is Monday afternoon’s county press briefing.
The worker then returned to apartment 101 when the flash fire occurred. The resident and maintenance worker fled the unit and were walking down a back staircase when “a large explosion occurred,” Goldstein said.
For the fire and explosion to occur, a spark had to be ignited. A pilot light, power tool, cigarette or many other things could have been the spark that set the place on fire. There are many options, and Goldstein said he doubts the cause of the spark will ever be known.
Executive Marc Elrich said the county will conduct research in two areas. First, he will determine whether the pipes in this building, which was erected in 1971, were labeled and, if not, should they have been. Second, county officials want to know how housekeepers are hired at Friendly Garden Apartments and whether they are properly trained.
Elrich said the county is checking to see if the maintenance worker is a licensed plumber.
While investigative work was underway, another group of county employees and nonprofit workers were helping victims secure housing, complete necessary paperwork, obtain money for food, and other necessities and recover their vital records.
County residents contributed $462,000 Monday afternoon to support displaced residents.
A few residents stay at the White Oak Recreation Center, but most are temporarily with family or friends. On Tuesday between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. and again on Wednesday between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., county workers will be at the Gwendolyn Coffield Community Center to assist residents.
According to council chairman Gabe Albornoz, about 150 firefighters and paramedics from Montgomery County and neighboring jurisdictions were on the scene to help.
“I saw the devastation with my own eyes, which is hard to put into words,” Albornoz said. He spoke with two women who worried about how they would explain what had happened to their children, and Albornoz said they were in contact with social workers.
US Congressman Jamie Raskin told MyMCM he is thrilled that so many county residents have come together to help with this tragedy. He particularly noted that several Hispanic nonprofit workers were helping displaced residents, though many residents are from Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.
Goldstein said if anyone smells gas they should get out of the building quickly. Once outside, dial 9-1-1, then stay outside.