Survivors of Silver Spring gas explosion call on county for more help

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Survivors of Silver Spring gas explosion call on county for more help

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Gustavo Zuniga this week at the Flower Branch site in Silver Spring. He and his wife were in the building when the 2016 gas explosion occurred. (Jennifer Barrios/The Washington Post)

Two years after a gas explosion ravaged a Silver Spring apartment complex, killing seven, survivors and their advocates say they need more help from Montgomery County to cope with the lingering trauma and loss.

They will make their case for that assistance Tuesday night at a community meeting that four County Council members have agreed to attend — District 5 Democrat Tom Hucker and at-large Democrats George L. Leventhal, Hans Riemer and Marc Elrich, who is the Democratic nominee in the Montgomery county executive race.

One of the survivors of the explosion is Gustavo Zuniga, a waiter and bartender who lived at the Flower Branch Apartments on Arliss Street for 13 years.

Zuniga said it’s a rare day when he doesn’t think of the night of Aug. 10, 2016. He and his wife, Liseth Lacayo, who works at a beauty salon, had just gone to bed when they heard the noise. The floor of their apartment gave way. Zuniga said he was knocked unconscious, with second-degree burns on his legs; his wife was left to drag him from the rubble.

Now, Zuniga said, he and Lacayo live in another apartment in Silver Spring, managed by the same company that managed Flower Branch but charging a higher monthly rent.

“We still suffer mentally,” he said. “Every day, we cannot sleep because of the trauma we have. She cannot go to sleep. It’s hard to get sleep. Sometimes she wakes up crying. She’s the one suffering more than me.”

A Flower Branch Apartments resident carrying some groceries walks past the damaged units at the complex after the deadly gas explosion and fire in 2016. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Zuniga and other former Flower Branch tenants are working with the nonprofit Action in Montgomery (AIM), which is calling on the county to provide more services and assistance to survivors of the explosion.

“So far, we haven’t been able to get a good response from the county,” said Holly Foley, AIM coordinator for Silver Spring’s St. Camillus Church. “Everything is going on at a glacial, bureaucratic, slow rate.”

Foley said the families are seeking individual counseling with therapists who are experts in trauma, as well as collective therapy, and rent stabilization for tenants. They also are asking for the county to redo an audit it conducted in 2016 of its response to the disaster, because that probe did not include input from survivors of the explosion.

Council members said they have been meeting with AIM to address the group’s concerns.

Kay Apartment Communities, which manages Flower Branch, did not respond to a request for comment Monday. The office of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) did not provide information about the county’s response, and the county’s Department of Health and Human Services did not return a call for comment.

In an April letter addressed to Leventhal’s office and to AIM lead organizer Cynthia Marshall, the department said it still offers counseling for survivors at its clinic in Wheaton and suggested the county could find ways to provide bus tokens or Metro fare to the site.

The department also said it was considering a study to assess the need for therapy among survivors and said it would help connect tenants with the management company “to request considerations and accommodations.” But the letter said the department did not think another audit was necessary.

After the explosion, the county worked with a number of nonprofits to provide shelter, food and other assistance to the victims — a response that officials called“unprecedented.”

Marshall said that the county has “stepped up” by providing additional mental health services but that in some cases, “families who were seeking therapy were being asked to pay.” The county also has not done enough to help survivors facing rent increases, she said, and the meeting Tuesday “is about bridging that gap.”

Lawsuits filed by victims against Kay and Washington Gas are pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The suits — which have been consolidated into one case — allege that Washington Gas and Kay ignored tenants’ complaints about the smell of natural gas before the explosion and request damages and attorney fees. Kay and Washington Gas have denied the allegations in court filings.

“It’s super frustrating they can’t come to the table and begin a process of settling some of the damages,” said George Escobar, chief of programs and services at CASA. A lawyer with the nonprofit is one of several representing the tenants.

Washington Gas spokesman Brian Edwards said the company was awaiting the results of an investigation into the cause of the explosion by the National Transportation Safety Board. “The litigation cannot fully proceed until the NTSB completes its work,” Edwards said in a statement. “We are continuing to cooperate with the NTSB as they work toward making a final determination.”

The safety board last year released documents relating to its investigation — including a preliminary report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that found there was a disconnected gas-vent pipe in the utility room at the complex — but has not yet released its final report. An NTSB spokesman said the investigation into the cause is ongoing, and the final report could be issued in the fall.

Flower Branch Apartments has begun construction of two new buildings to replace the two that were destroyed. The buildings, totaling 27 units, are expected to be completed next year. They will have only electric appliances — not gas.

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