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Two people have died and others still are unaccounted for after an explosion sparked a huge fire late Wednesday at an apartment building in Silver Spring, Maryland, officials say.
"People were dropping children and jumping out of other windows,'' Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said.
The explosion and fire injured 31 residents, Goldstein said in an update Thursday morning. Three firefighters also were hurt battling the blaze. The injuries included smoke inhalation and broken bones.
The blast occurred at the Flower Branch Apartments on the 8700 block of Arliss Street, about a half mile west of busy University Boulevard. an off-duty Montgomery County police officer heard the blast about 11:50 p.m. and called for help.
Two people were found dead in the building's rubble, Assistant Police Chief Russ Hamil said in the update Thursday. The victims will be identified by the state medical examiner.
Officials said early Thursday that as many as seven people were missing but did not update that figure after they announced that two people were found dead.
The missing include men, women and children. It's not clear whether the missing people were away at the time of the fire or could be trapped.
Some people previously missing have been located and reunited with their families, Hamil said in an update Thursday evening.
One woman at the scene told News4's Megan McGrath she was searching for her uncle after calls to his cellphone went unanswered.
"He lived in the building that collapsed. We're here waiting and nobody tells us, nobody says anything to us," she said.
All residents, many of whom are Spanish-speaking, are asked to contact authorities because some people still are missing.
The early morning fire caused significant structural damage and a partial building collapse. The force of the explosion blew debris into a parking lot across the street from the complex.
Some 90 residents have been displaced from 28 apartments, Goldstein said.
A major effort is underway to help residents. Donations poured in all day Thursday, and local elementary school teachers arrived to read to children and provide some normalcy.
Firefighters at a station about a mile away felt the blast, Goldstein said. More than 160 fire and rescue workers were called to the complex to battle the blaze.
Montgomery County Fire Capt. Oscar Garcia said the fire was under control at about 2 a.m., but that there may be hot spots still burning underneath the collapse.
Officials said Thursday morning that the cause of the fire and explosion is not yet known. A Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives team is assisting the Montgomery County police and fire departments.
'Un Temblor': Residents Describe Explosion as Earthquake
The early morning explosion rocked the area around the large complex, with many saying they felt the explosion as far as a mile away.
Many residents described the fiery blast as feeling like "un temblor," an earthquake. Others say they felt their home sway.
Wendy Loayes experienced the explosion firsthand, escaping the burning building with the help of a stranger.
"The fire was next to me. I was so scared," the young girl said.
Loayes and her mother were going down the building's stairs when a stranger scooped up Loayes and took her to safety.
Loayes' mother says others in their building weren't so lucky. One of their neighbors is desperately searching for their young son, who has not been seen since the explosion. One neighbor said that when the building collapsed, the boy slipped from the woman's hands.
"Everybody was getting out of the building as rapidly as possible," Goldstein said.
Carlos Ingles said the explosion felt like an earthquake, but instead of running away, he and others ran to help.
"Children, they were thrown from the top. I don't have words," Ingles said.
Ingles said he caught a baby whose parents, fearing they wouldn't escape the flames, tossed the child to safety.
Two other children, he says, jumped down into their arms.
One couple said the bed they were sleeping in crashed through the floor and down three stories when the explosion happened.
"We fell down with the whole bed and I think that's why we're still alive," the man told News4.
"I've been smelling gas for weeks"
While the official cause of the fire has not been released, Adrian Boya told News4's Derrick Ward he has been smelling gas for some time now.
"I've been smelling gas for weeks. I called 911, they came and told us it smelled like incense," Boya said. That's pretty sad. It's like they didn't take us seriously."
Joy West said she also could smell gas in the area prior to the explosion.
"When I walk in this area, you smell gas near the corner as you approached the gas station. But it's very strong on Flower, about a block from here," West said. "I just felt, and I told the guys at the store, 'You guys be careful 'cause one day something is going to blow up around here.'"
The Montgomery County fire department responded to a call July 25 reporting the smell of gas, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett said.
Building management told Goldstein there were no prior reports of problems at the buildings.
"We asked that of property management first thing this morning. No prior issues concerning the buildings. No prior responses from fire/rescue at these buildings," Goldstein said.
Goldstein said each unit has a natural gas furnace and stove.
A woman who used to work for the management office at Flower Branch Apartments said the smell of gas was a common complaint during the years she was employed there.
"Oh my God. It finally happened," said the woman, who did not want to be identified. "They would send the maintenance people to check, but I think something more needed to be done."
Hamil said the reports about the smell of gas being in the area before the explosion will be investigated.
Washington Gas crews were on the scene and shut off gas to the area.
"Our thoughts are with the families impacted by this event. They have our support now and in the days ahead," a Washington Gas spokesman said in a statement.
Piringer said power lines nearby were also affected.
Resident Veronica Jarreto said Thursday that she felt lucky to not have been home when her apartment was destroyed. She was at a hospital with a sick child.
"We lost everything. Our home, clothes and food, she said via an interpreter.
Jarreto stood at a community center with her 11-month-old child strapped to her back and 3-year-old alongside her.
"I'm going to stay in the shelter and, God willing, he will provide for this evening," she said.