SILVER SPRING — It’s been two full years since Kenya Mayorga and her three children heard the loud boom and watched flames engulf a section of the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring, resulting in the death of seven tenants. No one in her family sleeps through the night, and they all still panic whenever they hear a fire truck siren, she said.
“Honestly, I am not” over the gas explosion and fire on Aug. 10, 2016, at the apartments on Piney Branch Road.
“I am not feeling better. I don’t feel safe,” she said, adding she remained there so her children can attend the area schools.
“It’s traumatic,” agreed Anna Martinez, lead organizer at CASA de Maryland. Residents at the apartments “don’t have the certainty it won’t happen again.”
In memory and in honor of those who died, were injured or displaced, a vigil Friday was held at the scene.
“We are here to show our respect and our solidarity,” said Gustavo Torres, CASA president.
It’s important for everyone to work together so the tragedy never happens again, he told the small crowd of about 50 people.
County Council member Tom Hucker spoke at the event, which ended when the crowd held lit candles and walked the perimeter of the fire scene, where new apartments slowly are being constructed.
“None of us can ever forget that night,” Hucker said, adding that now is the time to “support all the survivors who live with the trauma every day.”
The incident created a voice for renters, Hucker said, that led to increased tenant rights. Tenant voices also convinced Kay Management to change its property manager more than a year ago.
Those laws call for more frequent inspections, higher penalty fines and creation of places where tenants can be heard, he said.
Several residents admitted to still smelling gas from time to time, which instantly flashes them back to that night two years ago.
Whenever Mayorga recognizes the odor of gas, she contacts apartment management, she said, adding that not every tenant does that. “People here do not complain, because they are scared. Me, I am not scared. If we do not complain, nothing is going to happen.”
When she does complain, her immediate problem is dealt with, but not the larger structural issues, Mayorga said.
“The structure still needs to be fixed,” she said, but management has told her it is awaiting the results of the report on the incident by the National Transportation Safety, which is still investigating.
While residents no longer complain that their calls to Kay Management are unanswered, some still see rats and bugs in their apartments.
“The progress has been very slow,” Mayorga said. “They fix a little, but much work has to be done.”
Hucker also announced that Kay Management agreed to build a bilingual memorial on site.
“All we have won is not enough,” the councilman said, calling on Kay Management and Washington Gas to establish a compensation plan for victims.
“The victims of this tragedy can never be made whole, but they deserve some justice,” Hucker said, urging everyone to “continue to fight for those too afraid to raise their voices.”
Council member and Democratic candidate for County Executive Mark Elrich said the Council is dealing with connecting residents with counseling and support.
When asked if the County was helping with rats and bug complaints, he said he was not aware of the specific problems but said he would make sure the County code enforcers come when needed.
Referring to the Council’s tenants’ rights bill, Elrich said, “I am painfully aware everything we tried to do has not been done, and there is work to be done in the future.”
More than a year after the gas explosion and fire, inspectors listed 860 code violations, ranging from infestations of rodents, roaches and bedbugs to ceiling holes, water leaks, chipped paint, broken cabinets and doors, mold, mildew and broken smoke detectors.
Said Sofia Reyez, president of the Flower Branch Tenant Association, things are better, but not yet 100 percent. “We need to come together, work together in unity.”