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Apartment fire kills 2 despite ‘very heroic’ rescue efforts

By Matthew Barakat Associated Press

SILVER SPRING, Md. – Two people died, dozens were injured and others were unaccounted for after a massive explosion and fire at an apartment complex outside the nation’s capital, authorities said Thursday.

Among those injured were three firefighters, treated and released after a large-scale rescue effort in which some people dropped children off balconies in the garden-style apartment to safety below.

The two people found dead in the debris of the four-story building have not yet been identified. Montgomery County Police Assistant Chief Russ Hamill said at a news conference Thursday that the explosion’s cause remains under investigation. Residents reported smelling gas before the explosion, and officials responded to calls for a potential gas leak at the complex last month.

In all, 34 people, including the three firefighters, were taken to hospitals for treatment. Hospital officials said most were released Thursday.

People more than a mile away reported feeling their homes shake in the blast just before midnight Wednesday night in a working-class neighborhood two miles from the District of Columbia border.

Nine hours later, firefighters on a ladder truck were still hosing down the last of the fire, and smoke still was rising from the building.

Blast debris was scattered nearly 200 feet, including what appeared to be an apartment door blown all the way across a two-lane road and parking lot. Brightly colored bras hung from a tree in front of the apartments, apparently from a dresser drawer launched into the air after the explosion.

Erick Jimenez was outside the building Thursday looking for his father, Caesar, who he said lived on the first floor and was not answering calls.

“I’ve gone to the emergency rooms, Holy Cross, Shady Grove, nobody knows,” Jimenez said.

Eddie Macario said he lives in the building where the fire started.

“We were sleeping when we felt everything started shaking. We thought it was an earthquake, or just a tremor. And when we came out to the living room, it was full of smoke. We went out to the hallway and all the neighbors were getting out, running. A lady even said she had lost her baby in an apartment. I went in to see if I could get him, but I couldn’t; it was collapsing, full of smoke. Nothing could be done, and she lost her baby there, and up until now they haven’t found him.”

Firefighters found people on upper floors who needed help, Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said at a briefing. They used ladders to rescue them.

“People were dropping children and jumping out of other windows,” Goldstein said. “Everybody was getting out of the building as rapidly as possible.”

Initially, fire officials said they were seeking five to seven people who were unaccounted for. Police said later that they don’t have a firm number. Officials said they suspended rescue efforts and switched to recovery mode. The building was still at risk of collapsing, and had to be shored up before recovery efforts and the investigation could continue, County Fire and Rescue Service Division Chief David Steckel said.

An off-duty police officer working part-time nearby heard the blast, saw large flames and began a “very heroic” effort to rescue people with other officers and firefighters, Hamill said.

Paul Carden, regional disaster director for the American Red Cross, estimated that 100 people were displaced and 60 or 70 were staying at a Red Cross shelter established at a nearby community center.

Carden said those displaced are primarily Spanish speakers. Translators were being brought in to ease communication. Officials made comments in English and Spanish during a Thursday news conference.

Carden said the nature of the explosion was especially traumatic.

“To basically be in an event where people were blown out of their beds … and what they own is lying across the street, that’s a key difference” from a typical fire evacuation, he said.

The Red Cross was working with families to determine what kind of help they need. While Montgomery County is one of the nation’s wealthiest communities, the neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway in this section of Silver Spring are working-class areas, home to large numbers of Central American immigrants.

Mariama Turay, who has lived in the apartment complex for 30 years and spent the night in the shelter, said she chooses to view the explosion as a blessing, so loud that it woke everyone up and alerted them to get out.

“It was just like a bomb fell,” she said. When she escaped her first-floor apartment, the fire was “right in my face.”

Keni Flores said she was in an adjacent building when she heard an explosion and saw the flames.

“I just see fire everywhere,” she said. “I was thinking nobody can survive in that fire.”

Associated Press writer Sarah Brumfield in Washington, D.C., and videographer Bill Gorman in Silver Spring contributed to this story.

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