At Least Four People Dead in Possible Gas Explosion at Building in Silver Spring, Md.

(The Washington Post) -

A fourth body has been found at a Silver Spring, Maryland, apartment complex that was nearly leveled in an explosion Wednesday night, authorities said Sunday.

Eight people were unaccounted for after the explosion.

Authorities think a natural-gas leak may have caused the explosion, which left at least four dead, more than 30 injured and about 100 displaced. Two bodies were recovered on Thursday, but officials said at the time that several more were missing. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said natural gas may be a contributing factor in the incident, but officials said Sunday they were not prepared to identify a cause.

The explosion, just before midnight, rocked a Silver Spring apartment block and sent debris flying hundreds of feet away.

The building was nearly leveled, and it took until Thursday evening for investigators to stabilize it and recover and remove two bodies. The body of a third victim was found Friday.

The missing range in age from 3 to 65. None of the victims had been identified by Sunday.

“We are working to have answers to questions as soon as possible,” Leggett said at a Sunday morning news conference.

Authorities identified the missing as: Saul Paniagua, 65; Saeda Ibrahim, 41; Fernando Josue Hernadez Orellana, 3; Deibi Samir Lainez Moralez, 8; Augusto Jimenez Sr., 62; Maria Castellon, 53; Aseged Mekonen, 34.

Authorities also said they have reason to believe another man could have been in the building although no one has reported him missing. They identified the man as Oscar Armando Ochoa, 55. It was unclear whether Ochoa lived in the building or only frequented it.

“We don’t have the identities of the individuals as of yet,” Assistant Chief Russ Hamill said.

He said that because of the conditions, authorities have not been able to identify the race, age or gender of the bodies recovered.

The complex sits off Piney Branch Road, near University Boulevard, in a neighborhood with a large immigrant population. On Saturday, Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) toured the site alongside Leggett.

They also visited the Red Cross shelter for displaced residents, many of whom are Spanish-speaking. Some of the neighborhood’s residents are believed to be undocumented. Rutherford feared that their immigration status might prevent them from asking for help, but he wanted families to know the state would support them no matter their immigration status.

Dozens of families lost all of their possessions in the fire. Local nonprofits, faith groups and county agencies have been assisting them, aided by government officials from Central American countries.

The apartment complex is 60 years old. When the building was last inspected, in 2013, authorities found more than 500 violations. They indicated conditions such as overcrowding and inoperative smoke detectors.

Records showed that the violations were fixed by August 2013.

Outside the Long Branch Community Center, where displaced residents have been sheltered, children on Sunday morning played while vehicles pulled in front of the building with donations including food and clothing. Inside, some volunteers served the families food, while others played with the children.

Officials said they are no longer accepting goods, but they are asking people to donate money instead. Authorities said they continue to provide help to residents at the center but hope to have residents placed in permanent housing within weeks, before school starts. As many as 60 people, many of them young children, are getting help at the shelter.

Authorities on Sunday lamented that the heat has continued to slow the recovery process.

“We would like to do this more quickly. We just simply can’t. It’s too dangerous,” said acting fire chief Russ Steckel. He said that 55 firefighters are working on the scene and that the structure is still not stable.

“The heat also plays a factor in this very labor-intensive effort. That has slowed things down as well,” he said.