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'Thank God I'm still here' | Witnesses describe escaping flame-engulfed apartment building after explosion

At least 14 people were hospitalized, three are in serious condition.

SILVER SPRING, Md. — After a fiery explosion reduced a Silver Spring apartment building to rubble, residents raced to escape their flame-engulfed building. At least 14 people were hospitalized, three are in serious condition, residents from the buildings were contacted and accounted for and dozens more are in utter shock, having lost everything in the blink of an eye. 

Even in the midst of devastation, resiliency and neighborly devotion were on display at the Friendly Garden Apartments Thursday as more than 100 firefighters battled the blaze. Fire authorities said a number of victims taken to hospitals were rescued directly from the structure while the fire was raging – by firefighters who clearly took extreme risks to get to those people and get them out.

Azita Acharya lives nearby the building that exploded, and described the chaos that ensued moments after what felt like "a bomb going off."

"I called my sister downstairs and said 'let’s pack and go,'" Acharya said. "We got out and it was all black smoke coming. It must have been a miracle because when I saw that building crumble down, I really didn’t think that people might have enough time to get out.”

Acharya even witnessed one woman hand her baby down to someone else to get her child to safety. 

RELATED: 10 people injured in 2-alarm fire, explosion at Silver Spring apartment building

Neighbor Garfield Thompson heard the loud bang and saw the fire. He jumped the fence and started taking cellphone video as neighbors tried to help a traumatized woman who had just escaped the fire. Others ran into nearby buildings banging on doors to make sure neighbors escaped.

"As I opened my windows I heard my neighbors from upstairs saying 'get out, get out, get out!" Akosua Safo said. "One of my neighbors was screaming, calling her aunt's name so we ran towards her aunt's apartment. I saw a lady trying to jump out of her building ... It was pretty bad. I've never seen something like that. I just hope no one is dead."

Crews rushed to rescue residents trapped inside the building, including 83-year-old Blanche Hall, who was carried out on the back of a firefighter. She was later taken to Holy Cross Hospital to receive treatment. 

Her grandson, T.J. Hall, said he had been with his grandmother earlier in the day, and they discussed smelling gas. 

“When I opened the door I said, ‘Did you smell that? It smells like gas,'" T.J. Hall, said. "She said ‘I know, I’m going to call somebody about that.' I left and then about an hour later I got a call saying that the whole building blew up and the whole building collapsed!"

T.J. Hall said he rushed to the building as soon as he heard.

"I was scared, I still got friends stuck in the building and the whole building came down," T.J. Hall said. "I was so scared for my grandma and I was worried and rushed over here as fast as I could to make sure my grandma was OK.”

Blanche Hall had to be on oxygen most of the day due to her asthma, but thankfully she had no major injuries. Just before 6 p.m. she was released from the hospital and joyfully reunited with her family. 

"Thank God for the family," Blanche Hall said. "Thank God I'm still here."

RELATED: Neighbors recall moment Silver Spring apartment exploded

Yolene Rejouit was sitting in the grass nearby waiting on phone calls and updates from the hospital. Rejouit said she raced home from work after hearing the news. Her mother, aunt and sister were in their second-floor apartment and managed to get out alive. 

“We don’t know if my aunt broke her leg but it’s very swollen,” Rejouit said. "And my mom has something on her thigh and my sister on her head. She said the roof collapsed on top of them.”

Structural stability still remains a big concern with the apartment complex, as three of the six buildings in the complex have been declared unsafe to preoccupy. Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said his crew planned to stay on scene until all residents were accounted for, and the goal was to get residents inside the safe units as soon as safely possible to collect their belongings. 

RELATED: Here's how to help those displaced by explosion at Friendly Garden Apartments in Silver Spring

Members of the community are also eager to help residents who are displaced.

Montgomery Housing Partners will accept cash donations, 100% of which would be used to provide relief to families as they move forward. Donations can be made on MHP's website, which can be found here

"Funds are needed for transportation, clothing, supplies for children, and other essentials. 100% of the donated funds will go to the families impacted by the fire,"  MHP said.

Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of Montgomery County Health and Human Services, reiterated the importance of sending cash donations to MHP.

"We are asking folks not to make physical donations," he said. 

Physical donations can become inconvenient for residents who do not have a permanent home.

Those who are displaced are currently at the Gwendolyn Coffield Community Center, which is serving as a reunification center. Council President Gabe Albornoz said trauma workers will assist those who are there — as well as residents who were at work during the tragedy and will go there later in the evening.

Albornoz said the county is committed to doing everything it can to help the residents affected by the tragedy. 

Montgomery County sent out an alert announcing White Oak Recreation Center will be closed until further notice because it will serve as an emergency shelter. Residents who are displaced will be staying at the recreation center for the time being.

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