SILVER SPRING – Three years after the fatal gas explosion and fire that killed eight residents of the Flower Branch Apartments development in Silver Spring, about 100 people gathered to pay their respects to a community that has yet to recover.
Respects were paid next to the construction site of the unit being built to replace the one that was destroyed on Aug. 10, 2016, in what the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ruled was caused by an indoor mercury service regulator that was not connected to a vent and thus allowed natural gas to build up in the basement.
In addition to those killed, dozens were injured and hundreds displaced from their homes for several months.
Many of the people who gathered had harsh words for Washington Gas, who they say never had adequately addressed their numerous complaints of gas odors.
The utility’s current 5.5% rate increase “feels like they are passing their costs to us,” said Ana Martinez, lead organizer for CASA de Maryland.
The apartment building under construction also angered many of the attendees, who said they would have preferred a memorial built on the site.
Residents predicted rent will potentially rise again when the new building opens. The Purple Line, which is planned nearby, also will raise their rent, they said, probably causing many Flower Branch residents to look for more-affordable housing.
The new units will make “the entire complex more expensive,” Martinez said, calling the building “symbolic in a negative way.”
The new construction “represents disrespect,” she said.
“Many of the residents will never forget that day” when their building shook and fire and the smell of smoke was everywhere, Martinez said.
“Three years later, Montgomery County residents are still grieving about the various injustices,” she said.
Erica Ramirez, head of the Flower Branch tenant association, agreed, noting, “These three years have been difficult. We have made small progress, but all the tenants who live here know the small struggles.”
Ramirez, who spoke in Spanish as Martinez translated, said it was important to make Washington Gas follow all the NTSB’s recommendations while always remembering the seven people who lost their lives.
Mariama Turay, a 33-year resident of the apartment complex, took her very first steps on the sidewalk by the new building. Since the explosion, she has been too traumatized to walk by, she said.
The vigil gave her the courage to walk with others through the site, she explained.
Turay vividly remembers that night three years ago. Her apartment shook, and she thought there might have been an earthquake. When she opened her front door, “the fire was right in front of me.”
Her apartment building, which is directly across from the destroyed unit, received damage as well. Turay’s apartment was so damaged she had to stay in a hotel for three months while it was being repaired.
Keni Flores also remembers that night vividly. “It’s still on my mind. It’s never going away,” she said.
Her three children, who now range in age from nine to 16 years, also remember and panic whenever they think they smell smoke, she said.
“Every time we go to bed, we pray to be safe,” she said.
Several politicians spoke at the vigil, most of them thanking the residents for their courage and help in bringing about better laws for tenants.
“Thank you for working and organizing. We are going to make sure this tragedy doesn’t happen anywhere else again,” said Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-20).
“Our community is forever changed,” noted Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-20), who said she was working with Charkoudian to create a Just Cause Eviction law that would empower residents.
County Executive Marc Elrich called the tragedy the catalyst to more-frequent apartment inspections, increased tenants’ rights laws and safe and affordable housing throughout the county.
“I want you all to know, we all care about this,” Elrich said. “We all share your sorrow.”
He was joined by Councilman Tom Hucker, who said he was there to honor the victims and stand with the survivors.
Prior to the Flower Branch explosion, he could not get a majority on the council to support laws increasing tenants’ rights, he said.
Now, the council fully backs these actions for the county’s 400,000 renters, he said, noting there recently was unanimous support to enable renters to break their leases without losing their deposits if they live with health and safety issues that their landlord has ignored.
Following the speeches and live music, attendees held lit candles as they solemnly circled the block where the explosion occurred.