An explosion and two-alarm fire in Gaithersburg, Maryland, demolished parts of two apartment buildings on Wednesday and sent at least 10 people, including four children, to hospitals. Two adults had traumatic injuries, an official said.
The explosion ripped through the Potomac Oaks condominiums in the 800 block of Queens Orchard Boulevard near Rabbit Road around 8:40 a.m. Wednesday, officials said. Montgomery County Fire and Rescue received multiple calls about the explosion and fire, which sent smoke into the air from miles away.
“It felt like we were bombed,” said one person who felt the blast from his office nearby. “… My heart goes out to everyone.”
Within minutes the fire went to a second alarm. Although the majority of the fire was extinguished in about 40 minutes, crews were still battling a gas-fed fire in the basement hours later, and were battling smoldering hot spots.
Video and pictures from the scene showed a large wall of orange flames and a gap after the blast leveled part of a garden-style apartment building. Smoke filled the gap between the two jagged edges of the building where the explosion took place.
A 50- to 75-foot pile of debris and debris covered the lawn outside the building. Large bricks and cinderblocks were visible.
“There was an explosion out front,” said one man, who found an iron door thrown into his living room.
The force of the explosion was so powerful that two people in the area told News 4 their bodies were physically shaken by the blast.
Ten people were taken to hospital, officials said. Two adults were seriously injured and taken to a trauma center, Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said. Eight others — four children and four adults — suffered non-life-threatening injuries, Goldstein said.
Others were being evaluated, Fire and Rescue spokesman Pete Brinker said, but the situation was still fluid.
There is no word yet on whether anyone else is missing. Fire and rescue crews worked with Washington Gas Co. to extinguish the gas, but it was not safe to search for anyone else inside the building at this time, Goldstein said at 10:40 a.m.
Before firefighters arrived, maintenance workers rescued two people from an apartment building using ladders, Goldstein said.
The cause of the fire and explosion has not yet been determined, but Goldstein said the fire appears to have been “gas-fed” in the basement.
After first responders arrived, some residents said they smelled gas in the morning.
“The smell of gas was reported to our investigators this morning,” Goldstein said, but added that 911 personnel did not receive a call about the smell of gas prior to the explosion. However, it is not yet known if anyone contacted Washington Gas, any other agencies or building management.
Anyone who smells gas should call 911 immediately, Goldstein said.
In a statement Wednesday morning, Washington Gas officials said, “We are aware of an incident this morning in Montgomery County, Maryland. Our crews are responding to assist the fire department at the scene. As always, the safety of our customers and the community is our priority. We support the proactive response to this incident, and There are no further details to share at this time.”
It was not immediately known how many people live in the affected areas. The Potomac Oaks complex has four buildings with a total of 24 units, Goldstein said. Two buildings were badly damaged and two others were evacuated.
Potomac Oaks resident Traci DiMartini was at work in the district when friends suddenly started calling her phone Wednesday morning, but it wasn’t until the fire department rang that she learned her home of 19 years was gone.
DeMartini, a federal worker who was debriefing at the time of the blast, said fire officials were called to count residents. Soon, she spoke to her downstairs neighbor, who managed to escape.
“She came out and I think she was in shock, too,” DeMartini said.
DeMartini spoke to News4 as he ran home to see if his cat Rocky had somehow survived the blast. She wasn’t optimistic. She is desperate for answers about what caused the blast.
DiMartini told News 4 a neighbor across the hallway from his unit was renovating their condo, though it’s not yet clear if that was related to the explosion. Another neighbor, who lost his home but asked News4 not to be identified, said the unit at DeMartini is being renovated by new owners.
DeMartini became emotional as she talked about raising her college-age daughter in her longtime Gaithersburg condo.
“It’s the only home she’s ever known,” he said.
This is at least the third apartment building explosion in Montgomery County in recent years. In 2016, there was a major natural gas explosion at the Malar Branch Apartments Seven people were killed in Friday Spring. Earlier this year, an explosion at another building in the Silver Spring area injured 14 people After a worker accidentally cut a gas line.
Bystanders at the time of Wednesday’s explosion reported on Twitter that they saw smoke billowing from miles away. A video released by Channing Work just before 9 a.m. showed black smoke billowing from the area. Sirens could be heard in the distance.
Several roads were closed, including apartments, townhomes and commercial properties. Nearby Brown Station Elementary School was not affected, but students will be evacuated at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday.
This is a growing story. Stay tuned to NBC Washington for more.