Local authorities have identified seven people, ranging in age from 3 to 65, killed in a natural gas-fueled explosion and fire at a Silver Spring, Md., apartment complex. Dozens of other residents were injured at the scene from burns and broken bones as they jumped from apartment balconies trying to escape the fire.
Investigators are conducting an inquiry to determine the precise cause of the explosion and fire. Many tenants of the apartment complex were at home when the blast occurred just before midnight on Aug. 10 in the mostly low-income, Spanish-speaking community. Based on preliminary findings, investigators and building management are blaming a natural gas leak in a basement utility room.
Local residents said the smell of natural gas was commonplace in the Flower Branch Apartments, and some accused the apartment complex managers of ignoring their gas leak complaints. “They just reported it, but we don’t see them come to buildings. We don’t see them come to our apartments to check and see if everything is okay,” Flower Branch resident Melissa Velasquez told WUSA9-TV.
Kay Apartment Communities, the managers of the complex, countered that in 2016 it had received only two “documented concerns” of the smell of natural gas in an apartment, one in January and one in May, at the buildings affected by the explosion and fire. “In both cases no gas leaks were found,” Kay Apartment Communities explains on its website. “We do not know if any resident contacted Washington Gas about the smell of gas. Those are the only documented reports of the smell of natural gas other than the call to 911 on July 25, 2016.”
Many in the apartment community, including a large number of immigrants from Central America, were likely afraid to speak out about the natural gas leaks prior to the disaster and are now confused about their legal options, according to attorney Joel DuBoff of Silver Spring-based DuBoff & Associates. “This is what’s so sad about it. They don’t even know that they have a right. They are lost,” said DuBoff, who has met with residents of the apartment complex about representing them. “They ask, ‘What can I do? Can we make a claim? We’re not even legal.’ I said, ‘You’re a human being. You are allowed to be able to live and breathe and no one can take that away from you.’”
In the case of the Flower Branch Apartments, the owners and managers could be subject to what is known as premise liability, said DuBoff, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. With apartment dwellings, one type of premise liability is actual notice when a property owner knew about the hazard because residents had complained. Another type of premise liability is constructive notice. The property managers, not the tenants, are responsible for ensuring the safety of the apartment complex.
“You’re supposed to check this place out, usually on a daily basis. You have engineers and they go around and check these things out,” DuBoff said. “They’re in that utility room at least two, three or four times a day and they would smell it. Or they’re checking the pipes to make sure they’re secure. Or they’re checking on something about which someone has complained.”
Montgomery County, Md., officials confirmed that on July 25 a report was made about the smell of natural gas in the area. A Flower Branch Apartment resident, Adrianne Boi, disclosed that he was the one who made that call. Montgomery County Fire and Rescue responded to his call, but nothing was found, according to a WUSA9.com report.
Boi called 911 because he was frustrated that managers for Kay Apartment Communities were reportedly ignoring regular complaints of gas odors. Boi was preparing to call 911 in the moments before the Aug. 10 explosion after he smelled gas again while taking out the trash. The explosion happened as he was returning to his third floor unit.
The leak reportedly caused a rapid buildup of fumes that led to the explosion. In an interview with The Washington Post, Clark Melillo, president of Kay Apartment Communities, the management company, said staff members were in two adjacent rooms to the utility room until 6 p.m. the night of the explosion. None smelled gas, he said.
Washington Gas Light, the local gas utility in the area, is assisting with evidence recovery and system testing at the site. “We did a survey of the area. We did testing of lines to the apartment, which was the site of the incident and to an adjacent apartment,” Washington Gas spokesman Jim Monroe said. “We were onsite immediately supporting the work of investigators in the early stage and we continue to support the investigation that’s being led now by the NTSB.”
Disasters Put Spotlight on Safety of Natural Gas
Several recent natural gas-related disasters have generated concern about the safety of the nation’s natural gas pipeline and distribution network. The most prominent incident occurred in a middle-class neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., when a 30-inch-diameter Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline ruptured, creating a blast and an inferno of flames. Eight people died and 38 houses were destroyed in the 2010 disaster.
Other recent major natural gas-related incidents have occurred in Allentown, Pa., and the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. As with these other natural gas-related incidents, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is leading the investigation into the causes of the Silver Spring disaster and is expected to issue a final report within 12 months.
“Based on what we’ve heard from the tenants, there were many other complaints made to the property management. And that part of it is being investigated by the NTSB,” said Matt Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of tenants in the county.
Losak stressed that his group is concerned that tenants, especially in poorer and immigrant communities, are afraid to make complaints because property management can be belligerent and threatening as well as unresponsive when residents make complaints about property conditions.
The Montgomery County Renters Alliance asked the NTSB to look specifically at complaints that may have been made to the apartment’s property management, not only calls to the fire department and the county code enforcement office. “We do know that Kay Management, at this property and other properties, on the ground has had difficulty in being responsive to tenant complaints in general. With that as a baseline, we have concerns that tenants’ voices and complaints would not have been heard,” he said.
As with natural gas-related disasters in other parts of the country, experts are not expecting a quick conclusion to the Silver Spring investigation or any potential legal proceedings that may follow. San Francisco-based PG&E is nearing the seventh year of defending itself against criminal and civil claims after the devastating San Bruno pipeline rupture.
In the meantime, Losak said his group will continue to support a renter’s protection bill that was introduced in Montgomery County in 2015. The bill includes provisions for increased code enforcement. Flower Branch Apartments was tagged with more than 900 code violations in 2010 and more than 700 code violations in 2013, according to the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
“We do have a concern that if you know that a property is problematic, we’d like to see code [enforcement] perform inspections more than just once every three years,” said Losak, who added the Flower Branch property has proven it is “chronically problematic.”