SILVER SPRING, Md. - It has been more than two years since the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring were ripped apart by a huge natural gas explosion that left seven people dead. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has yet to release its final report on the investigation and is now facing new pressure to wrap up the probe.
The agency was supposed to release its findings months ago, which is now holding up dozens of lawsuits that could provide some much-needed relief to the victims. The judge presiding over those cases has expressed frustration over the lack of progress and now Maryland lawmakers are pressing the agency for answers.
CASA, the immigrant advocacy group representing hundreds of victims, says many of the people impacted are low-income families who are still struggling to rebuild.
“As of this last hearing, the judge really put pressure on the NTSB to do their job and finish the report because these are people’s lives at stake, says CASA’s communications director Lizette Olmos. “These are individuals who have lost family members, who have suffered trauma, who have also suffered physical harm.”
The Aug. 10, 2016 explosion killed seven people, including two children. The blast ignited a massive fire while the building collapsed, injuring 25 people and displacing 150 others. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) later determined someone had disconnected a natural gas pipe in a utility room.
Olmos says Washington Gas and Kay Management, who are both named in the lawsuits, are pointing the blame at one another. She says the NTSB’s report will be crucial in determining who should be held legally responsible and how the victims and their families will be compensated.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, (D-Md.) says there are two major reasons why the NTSB’s investigation has dragged on far too long.
“The destructive nature of this explosion, even more than others, they say has caused it to be a long investigation,” said Van Hollen. “In addition, they did have some issues with personnel. The person in charge of the investigation retired early. So there are other personnel issues. The key now is for them to wrap it up without cutting any corners.”
Van Hollen is among the lawmakers taking notice of the pace of the investigation. He sent a letter to the NTSB on Friday requesting an in-person briefing on the status of the investigation by Dec. 7 – with a clear timeline as to when the report will be finished.
Hollen says it is time these families get the closure they deserve.
“What they have not provided is any summary or conclusions," he said.
The NTSB has declined to comment, but a spokesperson for the agency says they expect to finish the report by March 2019.