As first day of school approaches, students displaced by apartment explosion face challenging start

- The first day of school for students in Montgomery County are just days away, but it will be a challenging start for families and children who lived at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring. Their apartment building was destroyed more than two weeks ago in a natural gas explosion and has placed these displaced residents in a tough situation.

The National Transportation Safety Board has cleared the scene, but the building is still too unsafe for residents to retrieve their belongings. In total, 120 people – 55 families total – are now working hard to get their lives back on track, especially for the children who have to start school on Monday.

We have been told that there are 26 households that were on the leases. Of those, 15 of them are now in permanent fully-furnished housing and five more will have that permanent housing by September 10. However, six other families declined it, have not decided or cannot be reached.

For the other 29 households that were staying in these apartments but were not on the lease, five are now in 90-day temporary housing while more than 20 families were given money to stay with other family and friends.

Life is still very much up in the air for 19 children who lived in the building that exploded. Principals and teachers at two nearby elementary schools have been visiting these children. On the advice of social workers, they are offering transportation assistance for these families if they want their child to stay at these schools regardless of where their new housing is.

The principals at Oak View Elementary School and New Hampshire Estates Elementary School explained how they are working to help the students caught up in this tragedy.

"Just about anything they need as long as know what it is," said Jeffrey Cline, principal at Oak View Elementary School. "We have had some stories where one of our teachers was talking to a student and the student said, 'I just want something that is just mine.' Because they lost everything. So we asked what that was and the student said, 'I'd like to have a book in a bookbag.' I had a bookbag with school supplies, and 30 minutes later, he had it. We made sure he knew it was his."

"We had staff members going to the shelter, playing games with the kids, reading with the kids," said Bob Geiger, principal at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School. "One of our staff members was trying to help the kids go to sleep at night because one of the things these kids have been having trouble with is sleeping. She was with one of the little kids until about midnight."

Both school staffs have met together and been trained on how to best support these children. They will have psychologists on hand in the short term and the PTA has raised thousands of dollars to help families down the road, even into the holidays and the new year. 

Parents who attended the open houses at the two nearby elementary schools on Friday said they cannot imagine what these families are still going through.

“It must be hard so they will need a lot of support from all of us – the community,” said Karen Alvardado.

“I don’t think it’s normal just yet for them,” said another parent. “From what I have heard, some of them still have nightmares and they still don’t sleep right. It’s only been about two weeks. I don’t think it’s really normal yet. They lost their homes. They are living either in shelters or temporary homes. It is hard knowing that my kids can go back to school and then [those children affected] have to go back to school traumatized. But it’s sad. It breaks my heart they get to start off the new year bad.”

There were many donations made for these displaced families and many of the clothes, backpacks and school supplies collected have been handed out.

Attorney Joseph Cammarata said in the last week, he has signed up approximately 20 residents affected by the blast at the apartment complex and he believes there will be more to come. He said he will pursue lawsuits on their behalf and possible defendants include the landlord, management company, Washington Gas and even Montgomery County.

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