SILVER SPRING, MD — The grim death toll following a natural gas leak that caused a devastating explosion and fire at a Silver Spring apartment complex became more official Thursday with the confirmation of the sixth victim found in the ruins, Montgomery County Police said.
Investigators are still working to unravel what caused the Aug. 10 disaster at the Flower Branch Apartments but say the explosion was caused by a gas leak in the meter room of the building. Leaking gas built up in the room until the explosion was sparked. Federal investigators will look at the gas transmission equipment for possible defects.
Authorities have now identified six of the seven victims found in the debris of the apartment buildings at 8701 and 8703 Arliss Ave. DNA has been used to identify victims found in the burned-out apartment building. On Thursday authorities said Aseged Mekonen, 34, was confirmed as one of the victims recovered after the blaze.
On Tuesday, investigators identified two child victims as:
Deibi "David" Samir Lainez Morales, 8Fernando Josue Hernandez Orellana, 3
On Aug. 19, authorities confirmed they had found:
Augusto Jimenez Sr., 62Maria Auxiliadorai Castellon-Martinez, 53Saul Paniagua, 65
Investigators continue their work to identify the last victims, Saeda Ibrahim, 41.
Authorities said last week they do not believe there are any people unaccounted for, but Assistant Montgomery County Police Chief Russ Hamill said he had no timeline on how long the process might take.
"We understand the agony of the families, we understand the daily toll this takes, it’s almost unimaginable," Hamill said. "We will do everything we can to get these tests done correctly and as quickly as possible."
Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board are now in charge of the investigation into the cause of the explosion and fire at the apartments.
An NTSB agent said it could take months to review all the evidence and determine exactly what went wrong.
A total of 28 apartment units were destroyed, and 50 families were displaced by the disaster. Dozens of residents were injured at the scene, some from burns and others from broken bones as they jumped from the third and fourth floors of the buildings.
Residents had raised the issue of the lingering smell of natural gas in the area, which the fire department and an ATF official said they are investigating. Officials said Friday that all the other apartments in the complex have been checked for gas leaks and none have been found.
The company that runs the apartment complex, Kay Apartment Communities, sent a photo of a meter room at the Flower Branch Apartments to Montgomery Community Media. It shows a meter bank inside a building similar to the rooms damaged or destroyed in the natural gas explosion with green tag shown in the photo reportedly noting a recent inspection of the pipes and meters by Washington Gas, according to Kay officials.
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett said that a natural gas odor was reported on July 25. Firefighters responded to that complaint, could not verify the smell and left the scene. Federal investigators urged any residents who had noted gas leaks to contact the NTSB.
Housing Assistance for Fire Victims
More than two dozen families left homeless by the fire now have other places to live asMontgomery County and state agencies worked with nonprofit organizations and officials at Kay Apartment Communities to find housing for about 55 households.
Mary Anderson, spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, told Montgomery Community Media that 26 lease holders have secured or been offered units in the same Flower Branch Apartments complex or in other buildings owned by Kay Apartment Communities.
Anderson says 29 of the households displaced did not have signed leases at Flower Branch. Those families have been given three months free rent in subsidized housing units at various locations. County, state and nonprofit agencies are working with those families to determine if they qualify for permanent housing under subsidized housing regulations. A few families are staying at motels until their permanent units become available.
The Gaithersburg City Council has 43 moderately priced dwelling units opening in September. Displaced Silver Spring families who wish to apply will be given priority for the lottery after K-12 school employees, public safety employees and city government workers, officials said.
How to Help Victims of Apartment Fire
CASA de Maryland warns that people are calling on behalf of CASA asking for money. CASA is not making phone calls to ask for donations, the agency says.
MAIL (via check) FINANCIAL DONATION
Montgomery Housing Partnership
(Attn: Long Branch Fire)
12200 Tech Road, Suite 250
Silver Spring, MD 20904
[*] Write LONG BRANCH FIRE in check memo
ONLINE FINANCIAL DONATION
Montgomery Housing Partnership (Easiest – and preferred by charity)
Go to: www.MHPartners.org
Click on "Give Direct" (on right side of your screen)
Input amount and credit card number
[*] Make sure you indicate LONG BRANCH FIRE in the "comment" box
If you can volunteer as a Spanish or French interpreter for affected families, email email@example.com.
Tax help for Flower Branch victims
Maryland’s Comptroller Peter Franchot said his office will offer help to residents of the apartments affected by the fire.
Any resident of the apartment complex who may not be able to pay their tax obligations on time, or pay the right amount, can call his office so that alternative arrangements can be made.
Anyone looking for assistance should call Special Assistant Mariela Cruz at 410-260-4020. Residents who need help can also email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Long Branch Library Resources
Montgomery County Public Libraries Long Branch is providing services to support residents who lost their homes and personal belongings. The Long Branch Library at 8800 Garland Ave. in Silver Spring offers:
Spanish speakers on staffComputers and laptops for work and personal useCharging stationsFree fast Wi-FiBooks, toys, and gamesAir Conditioner
Additionally, the library staff will provide library resources and materials to residents who are staying at the emergency shelter established at the Long Branch Community Recreation Center.
»Flower Branch fire photos courtesy of Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services; photo of victims from Montgomery County Police; photo of meter room from Montgomery Community Media