A natural gas explosion that leveled part of a Silver Spring, Maryland apartment complex in August 2016, killing seven people and injuring more than 30 others, was caused by faulty equipment owned and operated by Washington Gas, the D.C.-based utility that serviced the apartments.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded in its final report of the gas explosion that a faulty mercury service regulator and an unconnected vent line allowed natural gas to leak. The escaped gas accumulated to “an explosive level” in the meter room of the Flower Branch Apartment complex, the NTSB said. The accumulated gas eventually met “an ignition source” that sparked the Aug. 10 explosion.
NTSB investigators found that other factors contributed to the gas explosion. People reported smelling the odor of natural gas several times in the weeks before the blast, but the company that managed the Flower Branch Apartment complex, Kay Management, never notified Washington Gas of a potential gas leak.
Additionally, Kay Management changed the lock on the apartment complex meter room but did not provide the fire department with a new key, as required by law. Subsequently, when firefighters responded to a call about the smell of gas on the property two weeks before the gas explosion, they were unable to access the meter room.
According to The Washington Post, NTSB investigators found firefighters responding to the reported gas leak were able to partially pry open the door of the meter room but they did not detect the smell of gas and left. Washington Gas was not notified of the incident.
“Six times in the weeks and months preceding the accident, residents reported a natural gas smell to Kay Management,” NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said during an April 23 meeting about the gas explosion. “In each case, maintenance staff reported that they did not detect gas or attributed the smell to the painting of apartments.”
Both Kay Management and Washington Gas pushed back on the NTSB’s findings.
Clark Melillo, president of Kay Apartment Communities, said in a statement that he accepted the NTSB’s conclusion — “that there was a gas regulator failure and a disconnected vent pipe — equipment not owned or maintained by Flower Branch Apartments,” according to The Washington Post. He did not address the NTSB’s findings that the company never made a key available to the meter room and allegedly failed to notify Washington Gas when residents reported the odor of natural gas on the property.
A Washington Gas official said the company disagreed with the agency’s findings. The utility said it does not think the evidence points to a failure of its equipment and asserted that the NTSB did not sufficiently investigate other potential causes of the gas explosion.
According to The Washington Post, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service explosives investigator Lt. William Olin praised the NTSB’s “professionalism, their methodical and scientific approach,” but said Washington Gas officials acted defensively during the fire department’s investigation.
“Washington Gas treated meetings and interviews more like a court room cross examination than a joint investigation geared at finding the cause of a tragic accident,” Lt. Olin wrote.
Likewise, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy took aim at Washington Gas for its lack of cooperation during the investigation.
“I strongly suggest that Washington Gas refocus its attention on actions they could have taken to prevent this accident from occurring, rather than spend time telling us how to conduct our safety investigation,” Ms. Homendy said.
Ultimately, liability for the deadly gas explosion will be hashed out in litigation. Kay Management and Washington Gas face multiple lawsuits from families of five adults and two children who died in the blast, as well as personal injury lawsuits and claims from some of 100-plus individuals who lost personal belongings and were displaced by the blast.