NTSB releases Flower Branch Apartments explosion docket

The NTSB released its report on the Flower Branch Apartments Explosion. (NTSB/Public Utilities Commission of Maryland)

The National Transportation Safety Board released its docket on the Flower Branch Apartments explosion this week, one year after the explosion that killed seven people, injured dozens and displaced several hundred residents.

NTSB’s docket states that 68 people were injured as part of the explosion – 65 residents and 3 firefighters, with property damage over $1 Million.

NTSB described the docket in its press release: “The docket includes factual reports that cover various aspects of the investigation, including operations, survival factors, materials laboratory, and regulatory oversight. The docket also includes interview transcripts, pertinent photographs, and other investigative material.

“The docket contains only factual information collected by NTSB investigators; and it does not provide the final report, analysis, findings, recommendations, or probable cause determinations. No conclusions about how or why the explosion occurred should be drawn from the information within the docket at this time. Analysis, findings, recommendations, and probable cause determinations related to the explosion will be issued by the NTSB at a later date.”

Several witnesses interviews, logs of calls to the Montgomery County Fire Department and photographs are included in the report, which vividly described the explosion and aftermath. “One witness stated about 11:30 pm he was in his car parked in front of the building. He did not smell any gas odor that evening while he sat in the car; however, his car windows were closed. He saw a sudden white flash, and saw [felt] a little shock wave that came toward him, and shattered
all the windows on the right side of his car and pushed in the right side of the car door.

“He stated that when he saw the shock wave coming, he did not try to get out of the car, because the wave was coming “sideways to the car, it wasn’t coming straight.” He saw pieces of glass from the damage; however, he was not wounded except for near his right ear. He became “confused and surprised” as to what had happened, got out of the car, looked at the scene, and went back into the car at least twice.

“He restated that “there was a flash, there was shock wave. The apartment that was on top of the apartment then blew up, basically it went down on the building. It is a building that has… I think, two or three…floor.” He continued “I must tell you that the explosion came from the apartment on the first floor. There were two apartments on top of it that basically went down on it.” He restated he saw the white flame, then it became “kind of yellow, red, you know little of everything.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also released their findings in the report, which classified the cause of the explosion as undetermined: “Given the damage to the natural gas regulators, natural gas meter bank and the water heater, investigators were not able to immediately determine the failure that led to the release of fugitive natural gas in the 8701 Meter Room. What is known is the three part union connecting the regulators to the vent pipe was disconnected prior to the explosion, thus, bypassing a safety feature of this system. The person who disconnected the vent pipe, as well as his/her intentions in doing so, are as of yet to be determined. With the unknown circumstances involving the disconnection of the vent pipe as well as the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation which will possibly provide more data useful to this report, this explosion is to be classified at this time as UNDETERMINED.”

After the explosion, investigations revealed lax enforcement of Montgomery County housing regulations that required building inspections every three years. Councilmember Tom Hucker blasted the complacency on several fronts:

Housing code inspectors found hundreds of violations at Flower Branch Apartments and Northwest Park Apartments, both Kay Apartments properties, following the explosion. Lawsuits were filed soon after. Refusing to comment, Kay Apartments stated on its website: “We have no new information at this time. The NTSB investigation is still underway and the lawsuits are going through their due process.”

In the months after the explosion, Councilmember At-Large Marc Elrich sponsored a bill that toughened code enforcement and repair requirements in Montgomery County. Bill 19-15 also spelled out a two-year lease renewal option, public availability of rents and other data, as well as a “repair and deduct” provision that allows for tenants to fix issues and deduct the cost from their rent in certain cases.

The bill was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Hucker and Nancy Navarro, and signed into law by County Executive Ike Leggett in December of last year.

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