A devastating natural gas explosion and fire ripped through a Maryland apartment complex killed seven people, including two children, and injuring dozens more. The survivors — mostly poor and Latino — just marked the second anniversary of the disaster this week still waiting for answers from federal investigators about the cause of the tragedy that has upended their lives.
While it is hard to say for certain that race and class are the reason, the most economically vulnerable all too often are hardest hit in tragedies like this — and sometimes the last to get the answers they seek.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency responsible for investigating natural gas explosions, said it could be late fall before it finally releases its final report on the disaster, even though similar investigations typically are completed in about a year.
A vigil was held Friday night at the apartment complex in Silver Spring, Maryland, to remember the victims and honor the Good Samaritans who helped residents after their homes were blown apart in the August 10, 2016 night-time explosion and fire.
Residents frequently complained about the smell of natural gas at the Flower Branch Apartments, and accused the managers at the complex of ignoring their complaints about it. Since the disaster, the local fire and rescue department has been called to the apartment complex numerous times in response to strong gas fumes.
“They are concerned about the conditions of the apartments. They keep smelling gas,” CASA Executive Director Gustavo Torres said in an interview with ThinkProgress Friday night. “They are scared about that.”
CASA, a nonprofit group that advocates for low-income workers and immigrant communities, worked with the Flower Branch Tenants Association to organize the vigil to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the tragedy.
CASA has been assisting many in the apartment community, including a large number of immigrants from Central America, who were afraid to speak out about the natural gas leaks prior to the disaster and were confused about their legal options after the explosion.
Many tenants of the apartment complex were at home when the blast occurred just before midnight on August 10, 2016 in the mostly Spanish-speaking community. The seven people killed in the disaster were Saeda Ibrahim, 41; Augusto Jimenez Sr., 62; Maria Auxiliadorai Castellon-Martinez, 53; Aseged Mekonen, 34; Deibi “David” Samir Lainez Morales, 8; Fernando Josue Hernandez Orellana, 3; and Saul Paniagua, 65.
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.
The NTSB originally said its investigation would take about a year. An agency spokesperson said it is still looking into the cause of the explosion.
“No determination as to a cause has been issued at this point,” NTSB spokesperson Keith Holloway said Thursday in an email to ThinkProgress. “It is possible that a final report will be available sometime in the mid to late fall of this year.”
NTSB investigations into other recent major natural gas explosions have typically taken far less time complete. The agency’s investigation into the 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California that killed eight people, injured more than 50, and destroyed 38 homes took less than 13 months. The San Bruno gas explosion cost the local natural gas utility Pacific Gas and Electric $1.6 billion in fines and other costs.
An NTSB investigation into a major natural gas explosion in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in 2014 was completed in less than 15 months. The Harlem disaster destroyed two five-story buildings, killing eight people and injuring more than 50. The NTSB determined that a poorly welded joint in a natural gas line owned by utility Consolidated Edison and a break in an old city sewer line were the likely causes of the blast.
Lawyers for the victims of the Maryland filed lawsuits against Washington Gas Light Co. and apartment management company Kay Management. The lawsuits have been consolidated into one case and are pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The suits allege that Washington Gas and Kay Management — owner of the property — ignored tenants’ complaints about the smell of natural gas before the explosion and request damages and attorney fees.
Kay Apartment Communities said it is unable to comment on the lawsuit while it is still pending.
A Washington Gas spokesperson told the Washington Post this week that the company is awaiting the results of the NTSB investigation into the cause of the explosion. “The litigation cannot fully proceed until the NTSB completes its work,” the spokesperson said in a statement to the newspaper.
Flower Branch residents had complained of “deplorable conditions” at the apartment complex. In November 2016, three months after the disaster, Montgomery County passed a law requiring annual county inspections of problem apartment buildings that generate numerous code violations.
Kay Apartment Communities said 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,” the apartment managers said after the explosion.
Kay Apartment Communities is building two new buildings in the same location as the two buildings that were destroyed in 2016. Construction is scheduled for completion in 2019. Tom Hucker, a Montgomery County councilmember who lives only four blocks from the site of the explosion, told the people gathered for the vigil that Kay Apartment Communities has committed to build a memorial to honor the victims of the disaster.
After Friday night’s vigil, Hucker told ThinkProgress that tenants of the Flower Branch complex say their apartments still have rats, mice, and roaches and have not been inspected by Montgomery County in more than a year and a half. The county inspected all of the units at the complex soon after the new law was passed in late 2016 but inspectors have not returned.
Hucker said he planned to immediately contact the Montgomery County Department of Housing & Community Affairs to find out when the Flower Branch apartments are scheduled for their next inspections.