SILVER SPRING, MD. >> A buildup of natural gas caused an explosion and fire that killed seven people and injured dozens of others at a Maryland apartment building last week, investigators said Friday.
The exact cause of the explosion remains under investigation, but Daniel Board, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Baltimore field division, said at a news conference that authorities have found no evidence that anyone intentionally caused the explosion or fire. But he also declined to officially classify the incident as accidental.
The Aug. 10 explosion at the Flower Branch apartments shook homes more than a mile away. Some residents reported smelling natural gas before the explosion; officials also had been called to the building July 25 by residents who reported smelling gas.
Board said Friday that the explosion occurred in the meter room in the basement of the four-story, garden-style apartment building, and natural gas then fueled the fire that spread quickly and also damaged an adjacent building.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents involving gas pipelines, is now leading the investigation. Ravi Chhatre, a senior pipeline investigator, said it will likely be a year before the board issues a full report on the exact cause of the explosion.
Brian Geraci, the Maryland state fire marshal, said the apartment complex did not have any devices in place to detect leaks of natural gas, and wasn't required to under state or local fire codes.
Board said that nearly 300 personnel from a variety of federal, state and local agencies have provided assistance at the scene of the explosion, including 85 ATF agents.
Also Friday, Montgomery County Assistant Police Chief Russ Hamill said he does not expect the death toll to rise beyond seven. It took several days for searchers to find the seven bodies that have been recovered; their conditions made it difficult to positively identify them.
Hamill said Friday that the bodies of three victims have been positively identified, with help from family members who provided DNA samples to aid the identifications.
The three identified Friday were Augusto Jimenez Sr., 62; Maria Auxiliadorai Castellon-Martinez, 53; and Saul Paniagua, 65. Four other bodies have not been positively identified, but police have identified four occupants of the building who remain unaccounted for: Saeda Ibrahim, 41; Aseged Mekonen, 34; Deibi "David" Samir Lainez Morales, 8; and Fernando Josue Hernandez Orellana, 3.
Mekonen's cousin, Getahun Admasu, expressed frustration at the slow pace of the identification process. He showed up Friday at the Long Branch Community Center, where the news conference was held, hoping to make arrangements for the body on behalf of the family.
"If he's dead, tell us he's dead. Send us the body or something," Admasu said. "It's very agonizing."
Hamill said he appreciates the frustration of family members and promised that "we will continue to work long hours until we can investigatively put this matter to rest."
In addition to the dead and injured, authorities estimated that roughly 100 people were displaced. Paul Carden, regional disaster director for the American Red Cross, said Friday that more than 30 people a night are continuing to stay at the shelter established at the community center, nine days after the explosion.