GAITHERSBURG, Md. — Firefighters are still searching for the residents of one apartment at a Gaithersburg complex hours after a devastating explosion rattled the neighborhood and sent people running for safety.
Firefighters in Montgomery County responded to a "catastrophic explosion" and fire in Gaithersburg that has sent at least 10 people to the hospital Wednesday morning. By nightfall, firefighters and other emergency crews remained on scene to monitor the fire and make sure flames didn't spark up again overnight.
Pete Piringer, a spokesperson for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue said crews were called to the Potomac Oaks Condominium Complex in the 800 block of Quince Orchard Boulevard for a report of a building fire and a possible explosion around 8:40 a.m. A second alarm was called to get more firefighters to the scene. At least 100 firefighters responded to the scene to help. The Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security is also on the scene, along with the American Red Cross.
Piringer said that the bulk of the fire had been knocked down as of 9:30 a.m. Firefighters said they had completed primary searches of the building and are were conducting secondary searches in the morning hours.
At least 10 people have been taken to the hospital as a result of the explosion and fire, according to Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein. Most of those injuries were considered not life threatening. Two people were hospitalized in critical condition, Goldstein said. Two additional people were hurt, but refused treatment at the hospital.
"The building has sustained a significant explosion resulting in a structural collapse," Goldstein said.
Residents of 24 apartment units have been displaced due to the fire and explosion, Goldstein said. In a later press conference, Goldstein said those displaced families were sheltering at Boherer Park in Gaithersburg.
Firefighters said one family is still unaccounted for Wednesday night. Rescue crews searched the rubble with K9s and have found no signs of anything, so the hope is they weren't home when the explosion happened.
One witness described hearing the explosion.
"It was a very loud boom. I've never heard anything like that," the witness said.
Nearby home surveillance video shared with WUSA9 captured the moment the explosion happened.
When the fire broke out, some neighbors ran toward the flames. Linson Matute Mendez headed back inside the building where he said he was able to help three injured people out through the blinding smoke, including a mother and her baby.
At first, Mendez said he thought the baby was dead in his arms, only to see it revive in the fresh air. The baby and mom are currently in the hospital. Their condition is not known.
Fire officials said natural gas was feeding a fire in the basement of the complex. Washington Gas crews are on scene working to shut the gas off at the apartment building. Gas has been shut off to all stoves and driers that use gas in the buildings impacted.
While gas was a component of the blaze, Chief Goldstein said it is premature to say whether gas was the cause of the explosion.
"It is too early to make conclusions. Too early to make information about what caused this," Goldstein said Wednesday evening.
Washington Gas issued the following statement:
"Washington Gas responded to a reported fire with possible explosion at the 800 block of Quince Orchard Boulevard, Gaithersburg, MD to assist the fire department this morning. Qualified crews on scene shut off the gas by an outside valve. Qualified technicians have conducted a leak survey at the incident location and surrounding area. No issues have been found.
As always, the safety of our customers and community is our top priority. We will continue to support the active response to the incident and do not have further details to share at this time."
Goldstein said, according to the property management team at Potomac Oaks, there have bee no complaints about gas in the past two weeks. However, back in September, the fire department was called to the complex for a gas leak.
"The fire department did not call Washington Gas on that incident because it was a problem with the appliance," Goldstein said. He said in that case, the leak was stopped and the tenant was told to fix the appliance.
Goldstein could not give a timeline for when firefighters could get into the building to investigate as it is still very unstable. He also was not able to provide a timeline for when a cause of the explosion may be determined.
This is the second apartment explosion this year in Montgomery County. Back in March, 14 people were injured in a large explosion and fire at the Friendly Garden Apartments in Silver Spring.
Back in 2016, the Flower Branch Apartments were rocked by a natural gas explosion that killed seven people and injured nearly 70 others.
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