ROCKVILLE – More than two years after a gas explosion and fire killed seven people at Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring, some residents still smell gas and continue to feel dismissed by those they turn to for help.
In the past eight days, Washington Gas has corrected six leaks, according to George Escobar, chief of programs and services for the nonprofit Casa.
“It’s super frustrating,” Escobar said.
Residents, county officials and community activists held a press conference May 8 to keep the pressure on both Washington Gas and Kay Management, which operates the apartment complex on Piney Branch Road.
In April, the National Transportation and Safety Board determined that the gas explosion was most likely caused by the failure of Washington Gas’s indoor mercury service regulator, which was not connected to a vent and thus allowed natural gas to build up in the basement of the complex.
The board noted that it was unable to determine an ignition source that started the April 10, 2016, explosion, which leveled the 14-unit building.
“The gas leaks and ignored calls continue at the very same complex to this very day,” said Anna Martinez, a community organizer with Casa, which held the press conference. “The Flower Branch tragedy must serve as an example of what needs to change for the safety of tenants in Montgomery County,”
“We cannot allow these corporate entities to continue profiting from community members while dismissing their concerns and jeopardizing their lives,” she said.
During the conference, Delegate Lorig Charkoudian (D-20) said she was “disgusted and horrified” upon reading the NTSB report, which attributed “negligence and responsibility” to several parties, including the first responders and Washington Gas.
She vowed to work with state officials on the public service and 9-1-1 commissions to ensure that all NTSB recommendations are followed.
County Executive Marc Elrich said he was upset to learn that residents were still having issues when reporting gas odors.
“It seems to me we are repeating the same things again,” he said.
Elrich told the small crowd that the county was going to make sure “everyone does their job.”
Also speaking at the press conference was Councilman Tom Hucker, who said it “was very hard for me to come back here,” as he still has “vivid memories from that night.”
He then noted, “I can’t imagine how traumatic it is” for those who live in Flower Branch.
“I want to make clear to all residents,” Hucker said. “If you smell gas, don’t wait. Don’t hesitate. Don’t call anyone else. Call 9-1-1.”
He said he had spoken with Kay Management officials, asking them “to redouble their efforts” and be respectful of tenants.
Hucker noted that Washington Gas has replaced all the mercury service regulators at the complex. He added that he asked the company to replace all mercury service regulators at multifamily dwelling units wherever they exist in Washington Gas’s coverage area.
Residents have the right to go to sleep “knowing that their kids will be safe,” Hucker said.
After the press conference, Hucker reiterated that 9-1-1 is the best number to call, as it has a multilingual staff and “they are trained to call the right people.”
In an emergency, residents may not have the gas company’s phone number nearby, he said.
Hucker urged all residents to call when there is an emergency or whenever they have a problem in their apartments.
“We don’t care about their immigration status, and we don’t need any personal information,” Hucker said.
While he said Kay Management’s record of helping has improved since the fatal gas explosion, it still could be better.
“There have been concerns,” Hucker said, noting that some residents believe they are being dismissed or not answered quickly enough.
He added that residents are more likely to complain to him about Washington Gas than to Kay Management.