Two people died and 34 were injured after a massive blast and fire levelled a Silver Spring, Maryland, apartment complex, forcing residents to toss children from upper floors and flee collapsing buildings, fire officials said.
Authorities said at a press conference they were still working to identify the dead and uncover the cause of the overnight blast and fire, which tore through the Flower Branch Apartments displacing more than 90 residents.
"Firefighters were met with heavy fire conditions and multiple rescues to be made," said David Steckel, division chief of the Montgomery County Fire Department during the news conference.
Firefighters continued to search for "some" missing residents of the Piney Branch Road apartments on Thursday afternoon, but backed off figures released earlier that five to seven people were still unaccounted for.
Montgomery County executive Isiah Leggett said, "Our heart goes out to those affected."
Leggett said at the news conference that officials had received a call on July 25 about the smell of gas at the complex, but it remained unclear if a leak played a role in the blast and fire.
Tim Firestine, the county's chief administrative officer, said the county received a call at 10:16 p.m. July 25 about a smell of gas at 8701 Arliss St. and fire and rescue personnel responded at 10:20 p.m.
They cleared the scene at 10:32 p.m., Firestine said, and the county is still trying to determine who responded, what tests if any were conducted and why the scene was cleared.
On Wednesday, a resounding blast occurred shortly before midnight that could be heard over a mile away and shook the affected buildings, 8701 and 8703 Arliss, like an earthquake, some residents said. An off-duty police officer was the first to report the blast at 11:52 or 11:54 p.m., officials said.
The explosion sent a door across the street, left clothes in trees and shoes strewn across a road. The two buildings resembled the site of a bomb blast with a gaping hole left in them. The flames that followed created a desperate scene.
"People were dropping children and jumping out of other windows," Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said of the fire at an early morning briefing on Thursday. "Everybody was getting out of the building as rapidly as possible."
Goldstein said that a K-9 team searching the rubble of the apartment complex had a "hit." He said it could indicate someone is trapped in the debris. It was unclear if that hit turned out to be one of the people confirmed dead.
Clara Mazunder said she woke up to a loud "boom," looked out her bedroom window and saw flames. The 39-year-old yelled to her two sons, ages 18 and 10, to get out of the apartment.
As she was running out of the building, she frantically pounded on her neighbours' doors yelling "Fuego. Fuego," she said, using the Spanish word for fire.
On Thursday morning, she stood outside a temporary shelter at a recreation centre with all she had left: a wool jacket, her nightgown, pink flip-flops and her large white purse.
"It was so scary," Mazunder said. "But I am grateful."
Montgomery County Fire Battalion chief Dorcus Howard Richards said several of those injured were transported to local hospitals. The residents' injuries ranged from minor to serious, Goldstein said.
Some had respiratory injuries from smoke, and others had burns and fractures from jumping out of windows. The firefighters suffered non-life-threatening injuries.
By 7 a.m., Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring said 11 patients had been treated and released after suffering minor injuries. Medstar Washington Hospital Centre said they were also treating five patients, but declined to release their conditions. Some had already gone home.
Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Maryland, said it had received nine patients and several had been treated and released as of 10:30 a.m. One was transferred and one was admitted for observation as a precaution. The hospital declined to release the conditions of the patients still in its care.
About 120 firefighters and EMS workers, from Montgomery County and beyond, were on the scene at the mass casualty incident. Firefighters made many rescues of people trapped inside the apartment buildings, including deploying a ladder truck to rescue residents trapped on upper floors of one of the buildings, officials said.
By Thursday morning, some firefighters lay in the road next to the apartment building, exhausted from their efforts.
"It's going to be a long, extended investigation to figure out what caused this fire," Howard Richards said.
Willie Morales, a resident of the apartment complex, was walking across Piney Branch Road from a chicken restaurant when he collapsed to the ground on his stomach in fear from the loudest explosion he ever heard.
"It was one big boom, like nothing I'd ever heard," Morales said. When he decided it was safe to rise to his feet, he saw flames coming from the basement and first floor of the apartment building in front of him.
Morales said he tried to bang on windows and to tell people to get out. He said he was screaming: "Fire! Fire! You have to get out!" in English and Spanish. "I tried to knock on the door and windows," he said. "I've never seen a fire like this in my life."
Officials from Montgomery County and the American Red Cross set up a temporary shelter at the Long Branch Recreation Centre, near the scene of the fire. Paul Carden, regional disaster officer for the Red Cross, said there were about 60 to 70 people at the location.
He said the Red Cross had set up cots in the gymnasium and was preparing to begin helping people find more permanent shelter. Red Cross expected to be on the scene for several days.
"The number of households impacted is significant," Carden said. "And the impact is more emotional because it was an explosion. I was at the scene and there's someone's shoe here, someone's sock there and someone's papers over there."
Chuck Crisostomo, operations chief of Montgomery County Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said many families have gone back to the apartments to see if they can recover belongings, though Crisostomo said up 24 units have been completely destroyed.