year after horrific Silver Spring explosion, victims still in shock, rebuilding lives

The site of the Silver Spring maryland apartments explosion a few days after the fire (top) and a year later (bottom). (WTOP/Nick Iannelli/Composite)

SILVER SPRING, Md. — One year after a fatal explosion rocked a neighborhood in Silver Spring, people who lived through the horrific incident are still experiencing severe trauma as they work to move forward and rebuild their lives.

“I have never seen or experienced anything like that,” said Felicia Charlouis-Prospere, who lives at the Flower Branch Apartments complex.

In the waning hours of Aug. 10, 2016, a basement utility room at the complex near Piney Branch Road and University Boulevard filled with natural gas and exploded, leading to a massive fire and building collapse. Seven people died. More than 30 suffered injuries.

“Kids were crying and parents were screaming,” Charlouis-Prospere recalled. “It’s tough for them. Their kids still don’t sleep. Even today, it brings tears to my eyes.”

Debris went flying hundreds of feet. As residents struggled to get away from the scene, parents dropped babies out of windows to bystanders and police officers. The explosion displaced roughly 80 people. They lost everything, including their clothing, furniture and important documents. In all, the explosion affected about 125 residents.

‘We will always remember that day’

“We will always remember that day,” said Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein.

“I can’t fathom the facts of sleeping, waking up and then totally having everything that was in your apartment gone.”

Photos: Apartment explosion in Silver Spring

An explosion and fire occurred at the Flower Branch Apartments, on Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring, Aug. 10, 2016. See photos.

Many of the victims joined lawsuits against Washington Gas and the property management company Kay Apartment Communities, but they are still seeking closure. Their litigation is moving slowly. Questions about what caused the gas leak and explosion are still without answers.

Pipeline experts with the National Transportation Safety Board continue to investigate.

“These folks are trying to figure out how to move on,” said George Escobar, senior director of health and human services with the immigrant rights group CASA.

“The material recovery has been slow and still difficult, but that was not as significant as the trauma that they suffered,” Escobar said.

Most are immigrants, from seven or eight different countries, and do not speak English, according to CASA. But they are supporting each other through their shared experience, forming bonds across racial and linguistic lines.

Help from the community

They also received a significant amount of assistance from the public.

“The community came together and found a way to help these families,” said Rob Goldman, president of Montgomery Housing Partnership, a housing development organization based in Silver Spring.

Goldman’s group raised more than $820,000 for the victims, providing essential items and giving thousands of dollars in cash directly to families.

“It was unbelievable,” said Goldman. “It was just truly an outpouring of support and was heartwarming to see in the midst of this tragedy.”

Today, the explosion site is an empty, grassy lot surrounded by a chain-link fence.

The Long Branch community is working to raise money to build a memorial for those who died, and a vigil is planned at the complex Thursday night to mark the one-year anniversary.

“Their ability to recover from this takes many months and many years,” said Escobar. “We’re still seeing that today.”

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