Goldstein said several people were still missing and K-9s had alerted people who might be trapped under the crumbling jumble of bricks, steel, glass and concrete at the Friendly Garden Apartments.
About 100 people were displaced by the blast, including 35 in the building that was destroyed in the 2400 block of Lyttonsville Road, Goldstein said. Two other apartment buildings were damaged in the six-building complex and are not safe to live in at this time.
Video captured a thundering boom as the explosion erupted, before a plume of smoke and debris shot skyward. Immediately afterwards, frightening screams and moans can be heard by those present at the scene. Fire crews and bystanders rushed to save a number of people from the raging flames.
Sylvia Bunyasi, 48, was at home in a nearby building.
“The flames seemed to want to reach the trees,” Bunyasi said. “The building was completely submerged. We could feel it; we could feel how hot it was.
The cause of the explosion was under investigation Thursday, but Goldstein said there had been no reports of gas leaks at the complex since Jan. 1. Some residents reported smelling gas before the explosion.
“It’s too early for me to say what initiated this,” Goldstein said. “We work on a wide range of concerns and possibilities.”
Firefighters were still extinguishing the flames on Thursday afternoon. The Red Cross and county agencies were assisting nearly 30 families who had requested shelter. Residents of unaffected buildings were to be allowed to return home Thursday evening.
Some firefighters and rescue dogs were able to walk cautiously over the pile of rubble on Thursday. The dogs are trained to detect living and dead bodies. The dogs indicated possible “alerts” that at least one body was under the rubble, Goldstein said.
Goldstein said the risk was very high for firefighters, with two unstable, unsupported walls – at least 30ft high – towering above the rubble. Equipment was brought in to knock down the walls.
“We will continue to work diligently until all are accounted for,” Goldstein said.
The explosion and fire occurred around 10:30 a.m. Goldstein said crews arrived to find all four floors of the building engulfed in flames. Fire department spokesman Pete Piringer said the scene was heartbreaking: “We have catastrophic damage.”
Amrit Gautam, a 38-year-old aerospace engineer, had just turned on his laptop on Thursday morning and was about to start work when he heard an extremely loud explosion.
He went to the back of his townhouse and looked out the window at a destroyed building about 200 feet away. Five seconds later, he said, he began to see flames. Thirty seconds later, he said, he saw the front wall of the building fall forward.
“People were running out of the place,” Gautam said.
He saw a woman hanging from a second story window, holding a very young child. A man below found something to climb on, reached out and was able to grab the child’s feet to save him, Gautam said.
“She handed the kid over to him,” Gautam said.
Tito Garcia, 40, was taking a shower on Thursday morning when he felt his apartment shake in a building close to the explosion.
He thought a tenant above him had dropped something, until his neighbor, Bunyasi, shouted that there was ash outside the window.
Garcia grabbed his 13-year-old son and ran away from his unit with Bunyasi. They tried to exit through the back of their building, but the path was blocked by debris engulfed in flames.
Whole sections of the building across from theirs — 2,405 — had fallen, Garcia said.
Steve Inman, who lives nearby, rushed to the scene of the explosion after hearing a “big boom”. He said the facade of the building had collapsed and the roof had been sheared off. He said he helped evacuate people from a part of the building that had not collapsed.
“I was able to get a mother and baby out first – that’s when the fire really started to kick in,” Inman said. “I broke down a few doors to get some extra people out.”
The response ultimately involved six or seven fire stations, 60 fire engines and up to 150 firefighters from across the region, Piringer and Goldstein said.
Crews from Pepco and Washington Gas were on hand to examine structures and electrical and gas lines. Goldstein said the recovery would be a multi-day operation. Crews planned to work until dark Thursday evening and resume operations Friday morning.
By noon Thursday, dozens of residents from Friendly Garden and surrounding apartment complexes had gathered along Lyttonsville Road.
The smell of smoke and gas wafted through the air as first responders carried people out on stretchers and placed them in ambulances.
Pablo Deleon, 21, said he was sleeping in his flat in a nearby complex, Paddington Square, when he heard a massive boom.
When he came out of his room, all he could see was smoke, he said.
“It was just mass hysteria, giant, giant flames,” he said.
Jibreel Seid, 68, heard about the explosion from his wife. Seid, who is originally from Ethiopia, said his family is one of many immigrant families who live in Friendly Garden. He was at work when his wife called to say the building next to them had caught fire. He rushed home to try and get his family’s immigration documents from his first-floor unit, but firefighters wouldn’t let him through. There was a chance the fire would spread, they told him.
“Our papers – that’s the most important thing,” he said. “We need this.”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) was at the building Thursday and promised a thorough investigation and government help to anyone in need. He said the building that was destroyed contained affordable housing. He called the scene “completely depressing”.
“It was kind of awful when you look at a building and see it gutted and the walls knocked down,” Elrich said. “You see all the debris piled up and all you can think is, ‘What happened to the people?’ ”
Rock Creek Forest and North Chevy Chase Elementary Schools have canceled outdoor activities for the day, such as recess, Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Christopher Cram said. Cram said students affected by the blast and their families are in contact with county support.
The nonprofit group that runs Friendly Garden did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (right) tweeted shortly before noon that his office had been in contact with county officials and state government emergency officials.
“Please keep everyone involved, including our first responders, in your prayers,” Hogan wrote.
Authorities are due to provide updates on the blast at 9 a.m. Friday.
Please keep everyone involved, including our first responders, in your prayers. https://t.co/lEYIXYXI3T
— Governor Larry Hogan (@GovLarryHogan) March 3, 2022
Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.