A video of the explosion showed debris shooting upward and loud screams following.
“We have catastrophic damage,” fire department spokesperson Pete Piringer said.
The cause of the blast was under investigation Thursday afternoon, as the Red Cross and county and state agencies attempted to help displaced residents. Fire crews were still trying to douse pockets of flames over the smoldering remains of the destroyed parts of the building.
The explosion and fire occurred around 10:30 a.m. at a four-story, garden-style residential building called the Friendly Gardens Apartment in the 2400 block of Lyttonsville Road. Goldstein said crews arrived to find all four stories of the building engulfed in flames.
Fire crews and bystanders helped rescue residents from the area around the blast.
Tito Garcia, 40, was showering Thursday morning when he felt his apartment shake in a building near the blast.
He thought a tenant above him had dropped something, until Sylvia Bunyasi, 48, yelled that there was ash outside the window.
Garcia grabbed his 13-year-old son and ran out of his unit with Bunyasi. They tried exiting from the back of their building, but the pathway was blocked off with debris engulfed in flames.
Entire sections of building opposite theirs — 2405 — had fallen off, Garcia said.
“The flames looked like they were going to reach the trees. The building was totally engulfed,” Bunyasi said from the Gwendolyn Coffield Community Center where she and her family had taken shelter. “We could feel it; we could feel how hot it was.”
Bunyasi said she left her home without any belongings, including her identification.
Steve Inman, who lives nearby, rushed to the scene of the blast after hearing a “big boom.” He said the front of the building had fallen away and the top had been sheared off. He said he helped evacuate people from a portion of the building that had not collapsed.
“I was able to get a mother and an infant out first — that was when the fire really started getting up,” Inman said. “I busted on a few doors to get some extra people out.”
The response ultimately involved six or seven fire stations, 60 fire vehicles and as many as 150 firefighters from across the region, Piringer and Goldstein said.
Goldstein said there could be serious damage to the buildings surrounding the explosion. Crews from the fire department and Pepco and Washington Gas officials were on the scene examining the structures and power and gas lines.
Some residents in the area reported smelling gas before the blast.
“It is too early for me to say what initiated this,” Goldstein said. “We are working through a wide range of concerns and possibilities. Our focus is on lifesaving at this time.”
By noon, dozens of residents from Friendly Gardens and surrounding apartment complexes had gathered along Lyttonsville Road.
The smell of smoke and gas hung in the air as first responders brought individuals out in stretchers and placed them in ambulances. Pablo Deleon, 21, said he was sleeping in his apartment in the opposite building, Paddington Square, when he heard a massive boom.
When he exited his room, all he could see was smoke, he said.
“It was just mass hysteria, giant, giant flames,” he said.
Jibreel Seid, 68, heard about the explosion from his wife. Seid, who is originally from Ethiopia, said his family was one of many immigrant families who lived in Friendly Gardens. He had been at work when his wife called saying that the building next to theirs had caught fire. He rushed home to try to get his family’s immigration documents from his first-floor unit but firefighters did not let him through. There was a chance that the fire could spread, they told him.
“Our papers — that’s the most important thing,” he said. “We need that.”
The explosion was reminiscent of another nearby. In August 2016, a natural gas blast killed seven people and injured dozens more at the Flower Branch apartments in Silver Spring. That blast left a gutted shell.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich was at the building Thursday and promised government assistance to all who needed it and a thorough investigation. He said the building that was destroyed was affordable housing units. He called the scene “flat-out depressing.”
“It was kind of horrifying when you look at a building and see it gutted and walls down,” Elrich said. “You see all the debris piled up and all you can think is, ‘What happened to the people?’ ”
Elrich said there were roughly 13 units in the destroyed building and the surrounding ones that were evacuated. It was unclear how long residents would have to stay away.
Md. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) tweeted shortly before noon that his office has been in contact with officials in Montgomery County and with emergency officials in state government.
“Please keep all those involved, including our first responders, in your prayers,” Hogan wrote.
Authorities are scheduled to give another news conference on the blast at 3 p.m.
Our team has been in contact with Montgomery County officials and @MarylandOSFM, @MDMEMA, and @MDSP have offered their full assistance in response to this fire and explosion in Silver Spring.
Please keep all those involved, including our first responders, in your prayers. https://t.co/lEYIXYXI3T
— Governor Larry Hogan (@GovLarryHogan) March 3, 2022
Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.