WASHINGTON, D.C. – The 2016 gas explosion at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring, which resulted in seven deaths, was most likely caused by the failure of an indoor mercury service regulator that was not connected to a vent and thus allowed natural gas to build up in the basement of an apartment building, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) agreed on April 23.
That board noted that it was unable to determine an ignition source that started the explosion and fire on Aug. 10, 2016, that sent 65 residents and three firefighters to the hospital and leveled a 14-unit apartment building.
During the three-hour hearing, the board and its staff also leveled blame at a lack of communications that kept Washington Gas from learning of six reports of gas odors.
The four NTSB board members proposed 13 recommendations they hope will be enacted to avoid a similar catastrophic accident.
Several of those recommendations revolve on Washington Gas replacing all mercury regulators, the last of which were made in the 1950s, with newer ones. An additional recommendation was that new ones all be placed outside a building.
The board also recommended that Washington Gas create reports to verify when regulators were replaced.
Washington Gas already has replaced about 175,000 mercury service regulators and has about another 125,000 remaining.
The replacements should be made first at multi-family dwellings and then at single-family homes, the board recommended. Replacements need to be made throughout Washington Gas coverage area in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and the Northern Virginia coverage area, not just at Flower Branch Apartments.
“This was a serious tragedy,” said Board Member Jennifer Homendy. “In the days and weeks that followed, Washington Gas should have been laser focused on safety and not continuing to say that the cause was determined, she said.
In numerous emails, Washington Gas “attempted to express doubt to defer culpability,” she said.
Another recommendation called for the fire department to be required to notify Washington Gas when called to investigate a possible gas leak.
This recommendation arose when the investigation learned that the Montgomery County Fire Department had been called to Flower Branch less than a month before the explosion but was unable to get into the basement room where the water heater and regulators were located, because the apartment management had changed the locks.
When it could not get in, the fire department called Kay Apartment Communities’ 24-hour emergency number but did not get a response.
The board blamed Kay Communities for not providing emergency workers with the proper keys, which it must do by law.
Following the hearing, Clark Melillo of Kay Apartment Communities issued a statement that said neither the vent pipe nor gas regulator was owned or maintained by Flower Branch Apartments.
“We reiterate how deeply saddened the entire team at Kay Apartment Communities is from the effects of the natural gas explosion that occurred at Flower Branch Apartments on Aug. 10, 2016. Immediately after the event we began working closely with all affected leaseholder families and quickly provided assistance packages, including rent credits, furniture, household supplies and prepaid debit cards,” Melillo said.
Sofia Reyes, who lived in the apartments at the time of the explosion, said the hearing brought her little satisfaction.
While it was good to hear all the information about the investigation, she said through an interpreter, much of it “was respeaking what we already knew.”
Reyes, who now lives in Wheaton, is involved in a lawsuit against Washington Gas and Kay Apartment Communities, with CASA of Maryland and other organizations.
The lawsuit is in part “to make sure we provide respect for the families that were impacted. This is the first time we finally are able to hear the report,” said Ana Martinez, a lead organizer with CASA. “Today was very important.”
Vicki Warren, who lives near the apartment complex and has been following the investigation since it began, said that while the unconnected vent is to blame, “It is only part of the equation.”
She blamed the fire department for not following up on the gas odor complaints – which were called into 911 “six times in the weeks and months preceding the explosion,” according to NTSB Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt.
Warren also said the county’s housing department was partly responsible for not conducting a mandatory inspection of Flower Branch.
“I think there were other failures that contributed, and none of this is comforting,” Warren said.
Fire Chief Scott Goldstein, who attended the hearing along with a half-dozen other fire officials, said that he didn’t believe firefighters would do anything differently than they did on July 25. They called the apartment’s emergency number, and they did not detect a gas leak or anything “to warrant the need for forced entry,” he said.
He went on to praise everyone involved who assisted during the night of the explosion, which began at 11:51 p.m.
The gas explosion caused all three floors and the roof at a 14-unit building on Arliss Road to collapse. It also caused one abutting wall in the next unit to collapse.
Sumwalt explained that the investigation took so long because the explosion, resulting fire and the force of people’s furniture — including even refrigerators, being hurled — damaged much of the evidence that would have helped investigators.
While it may not seem logical that the NTSB was the proper organization to investigate a gas explosion in an apartment building, Sumwalt explained that the “transportation of gas” to the meter made it fall into its jurisdiction.
The safety board listed 17 findings. One finding noted that if Washington Gas had been contacted after the county firefighters went to the scene, “they may have fixed the problem and avoided” the explosion and accompanying deaths.
Meanwhile, the two units destroyed in the explosion are finally being rebuilt after being fenced off for close to two years.