- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2016

An outpouring of support has eased the recovery process for residents of a Silver Spring apartment complex who were left without a home following a natural gas explosion nearly three weeks ago.

Within hours of the Aug. 10 blast at the Flower Branch Apartments, the Red Cross had set up a shelter nearby and donations from throughout Montgomery County poured in.

“There has been an overwhelming amount of generosity and care from the community,” said Mary Anderson, spokeswoman for Montgomery County Health and Human Services. “The fire started around midnight and within hours, the shelter was stocked with formula, diapers clothes, food and other items the residents needed.”

The devastation was felt by the entire community. The explosion, which occurred in a basement meter room at the apartment complex, injured dozens and left seven people dead, including two children.

“Many of the residents ran from the complex with only the clothes on their back,” Ms. Anderson said. “The scope of loss was absolutely incredible. These people lost everything.”

Montgomery Housing Partnership, a local nonprofit that promotes affordable housing, established a fund to accept donations for the victims whose apartments were destroyed. In a matter of days, the organization received more than $400,000.

“We’ve used the donations to help the residents in a variety of ways,” said Robert Goldman, the nonprofit’s president. “The fund helped us address the immediate need for things car key replacement, document replacement, meals and the essentials. But the bulk of the money will go to the residents in cash payments.”

The donations also will help cover the cost of funerals for those who died in the explosion, Mr. Goldman said.

Before the accident occurred, residents and local business owners reported the smell of gas on numerous occasions.

Leslie Bryant, director of education at Montgomery Beauty School, located across the street from Flower Branch, said the “overpowering” smell of gas lingered weeks before the explosion.

“The smell outside was unbearable,” Ms. Bryant said. “The mixture of the heat outside and the odor made us think the sewage was backed up, but an older client told me, ‘Honey, that’s gas.’”

Ms. Bryant said an employee of the school called Washington Gas to report the smell, but never got a response.

On July 25, the Montgomery County Fire Department received a call complaining about the smell of gas near the apartment. Crews examined the area with gas-detection meters but were unable to find a leak.

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation to determine the cause of explosion with assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue. The NTSB’s Office of Railroad, Pipeline, and Hazardous Materials Investigations probes accidents involving gas pipelines.

Senior pipeline investigator Ravi Chhatre is heading the NTSB review. In 2014, Mr. Chhatre led the investigation into a gas explosion that flattened two buildings and killed eight people in East Harlem, New York.

“In the coming days and months, evidence will be examined at the NTSB labs, reports, inspection records, etc., will be gathered,” said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway. “I suspect that a preliminary report will probably be the next release of information. That release can take up to about 30 days.”

The results of the full investigation are expected to take a year to complete.

In the meantime, community members will continue to support the residents. Locals hosted a Zumbathon on Sunday afternoon at the Washington Adventist University student activity center to raise funds for the victims.

“Every time they would find a body, especially one of the children, it was heartbreaking,” Ms. Bryant said, fighting back tears. “I’m glad we came together and helped these people out in their time of need.”

• Julia Porterfield can be reached at jporterfield@washingtontimes.com.

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