Rapid Response: Md. county explosion highlights uptick in blast-related incidents
Firefighters must ensure that they have and properly maintain air monitoring equipment to quickly identify dangerous environments
A multi-family apartment building was all but destroyed shortly after 8:30 a.m. Wednesday when a violent explosion rocked the Gaithersburg, Maryland, community. Montgomery County (Maryland) Fire Rescue (MCFR) units immediately responded.
Multiple 911 calls flooded the Montgomery County dispatch center early Wednesday, reporting explosions at numerous locations. It was ultimately determined that there had been one explosion at an apartment building.
Located in the 800 block of Quince Orchard Boulevard, the Potomac Oaks Condominium residential complex sits directly across the street from Brown Station Elementary School, along the busy Interstate 270 corridor, about 15 miles north of Washington, D.C.
When firefighters arrived, they observed a partially collapsed building with signs of explosion. Those first-arriving firefighters were confronted with at least a dozen civilian injuries and an actively advancing fire. There were multiple trapped residents, with maintenance service ladders being used to reach them and reports of residents jumping from windows and balconies.
While there was an active gas-fed fire ongoing when firefighters arrived, Fire Chief Scott Goldstein could not yet confirm whether natural gas was the cause of the explosion; however, he did confirm that the Washington Gas Light Company had shut off gas to all buildings affected.
Chief Goldstein reported that 24 units in four buildings are currently uninhabitable, while nine apartment units in two of those buildings have been physically damaged by the explosion. The entire complex was evacuated while firefighters went through every unit and common space.
As of this writing, approximately 75 residents have been displaced, while 12 residents have been transported to area hospitals. Goldstein described the injuries as “moderate, with no burn or smoke injuries.”
The occupants of one unit in Building 826, one of the buildings that partially collapsed, are currently unaccounted for.
Why it’s important
While firefighters routinely respond to complex incidents, being prepared for catastrophic circumstances like this goes beyond basic firefighter training. MCFR is a seasoned organization with significant large-scale-event response history, including multiple natural gas explosions in apartment buildings:
- Video: 14 hospitalized after explosion, fire at Md. apartments: March 3, 2022; Silver Spring apartment building; natural gas; 14 injured, 200 displaced
- Dozen hurt, 3 firefighters injured in Md. apartment blaze: Aug. 10, 2016, Silver Spring apartment building; natural ga; seven fatalities
While the cause of this blast is under investigation, firefighters must ensure that training for the multitude of possibilities is part of their repertoire – and that includes natural gas responses, mass-casualty care at fires, and explosive responses, to name a few. Firefighters also need to ensure that they have and properly maintain appropriate air monitoring equipment to quickly identify dangerous environments.
Chief Goldstein and I worked together for many years, and Goldstein confirmed to reporters today what we both have experienced. In the Washington area (National Capital Region of Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C), there has historically been approximately one natural gas explosion in buildings per year. Montgomery County on average has experienced one such explosion approximately every five years, although the frequency has been increasing. While there may be myriad causes, all indicators I’ve seen point to an aging gas distribution system with a transient population where we tend to see high turnover of renters in buildings that lack routine infrastructure maintenance. Fire departments must ensure that they are an active partner with their gas distribution providers, whether that is fixed or mobile distribution systems.
Goldstein was very careful to indicate that all causes are still on the investigative table. Fire chiefs should see Goldstein’s caution as a lesson and take heed that no matter the type of incident, we must allow the investigation process to proceed unimpeded by unsupported presumptions.
The investigation will continue on multiple fronts, led first by the Montgomery County Fire Rescue Department, with all necessary partners engaged – police, gas, structural engineers and any other applicable agency/department. Part of the investigation will look back at previous fire department responses to these addresses. Chief Goldstein reported one call for an odor of natural gas at the primary building on Sept. 22, 2022. No other calls are recorded, and there was no further information from the September incident.
I submit that the Washington Gas distribution system needs to have an in-depth evaluation, and we need to ensure our community risk reduction (CRR) efforts across the country include natural gas/propane safety. I have personally responded to at least four natural-gas building explosions, with half of them being associated with some kind of maintenance or work occurring in a gas environment.
Predictably, the fire department will receive an onslaught of “smells” calls in the weeks after these types of incidents. Goldstein did the best he could to reassure residents and make it clear that they should call 911 if they believe they smell gas.
The Montgomery County Health and Human Services agency has established a reception and reunification center, where displaced residents will be able to obtain information on housing, recovery, food, medical resources and other needs. They will be working through both short- and long-term needs for these residents. In jurisdictions with fewer resources, fire departments may have to corral these efforts until a proper recovery agency or organization arrives. The MCHHS representative passed along a fundraising and donation site for affected residents.