At a news conference the morning after the explosion, Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said the injury count increased from 10 to 14, including three who suffered serious injuries and were still at hospitals. The others had “minor to moderate injuries,” he said.
Authorities are still investigating the cause but are looking into whether plumbing work by a maintenance employee injured in the blast could have contributed to the incident as one possible theory, the chief said.
Firefighter crews stayed overnight at the Friendly Garden Apartments complex in the 2400 block of Lyttonsville Road, according to Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire Department.
The incident at the complex unfolded around 10:30 a.m. Thursday. Residents reported hearing a loud boom and felt an explosion before smoke and debris spread. A video captured the explosion, and people could be heard screaming. Firefighters and bystanders rushed to help rescue people.
Sylvia Bunyasi, 48, was at home in a nearby building when the explosion happened. “The building was totally engulfed. We could feel it; we could feel how hot it was,” she said.
Goldstein said there had been no reports of gas leaks at the complex since Jan. 1. Some residents said they smelled gas before the Thursday blast.
He said a maintenance worker for a management company had been in a building at the time of the explosion and was working on a “plumbing problem.” Goldstein said he did not believe there was “anything flammable or a torch involved” in the repair work. He said the worker was hurt in the explosion but has been talking to investigators.
Goldstein said investigators are looking into whether the work the person was doing led to the explosion or if there was another cause. But he said they won’t be able to figure it out until crews get through all of the debris, a process that will at some point involve clearing areas by hand, and investigate the buildings.
Six buildings were impacted in the fire and explosion, leaving 225 residents displaced. Three of the buildings were deemed unsafe, Goldstein said, and crews are working to restore power to three others that can be occupied but must first fix a nearby transformer that was damaged.
He said he expects crews to be on the scene for at least three days to deal with the complex investigation and debris search.
County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said at Friday’s news conference that about $220,000 had been raised to help those who were displaced and that “very few” of the residents stayed at a county shelter because most had gone to stay with family and friends.
Elrich said the complex had a fire inspection on Feb. 2 and a “tri-annual” inspection in September 2021. Goldstein said the more frequent inspections look at alarms, sprinkler systems and exits. The tri-annual inspections look at “tenant living spaces,” according to Goldstein.
“If it is something structural or a defect,” Elrich said, officials would look at regulations.
“If it’s human error that’s not something we can regulate,” he said. “Maybe better training is needed.”
Goldstein said crews were still looking for any visitors or a delivery people who make have been in the complex.
“We are not discounting that someone isn’t in the rubble pile,” Goldstein said. He said trained dogs remained to look for survivors or bodies.
On Thursday, the dogs indicated possible “alerts” that at least one body was under the rubble, Goldstein had said.
The nonprofit group that manages Friendly Gardens said in a statement that it was “enormously relieved” that all known residents are “are safe and accounted for.”
“Our management team is actively working with county officials, housing authorities, and service organizations to house and support Friendly Gardens residents and staff,” said Robin McGrew, chair of the Friendly Gardens board of directors.