The Maryland Public Services Commission listens to residents of Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring discuss a deadly explosion at the complex in 2016. Credit: Caitlynn Peetz

Former residents of an apartment complex that exploded in Silver Spring, killing seven people and injuring nearly 70 others, said on Tuesday they’re still struggling, three years later, to move on from the trauma.

Dozens of residents of the Flower Branch Apartments community testified before the Maryland Public Services Commission (PSC) at the Long Branch Library, about 800 feet north of the site of the explosion.

John Dodge, general counsel for Washington Gas, which is being investigated for its role in the fatal explosion, said the company has reached a settlement in a lawsuit Flower Branch residents filed.

He said “terms and conditions are confidential.”

Residents’ testimony from Tuesday’s hearing will help guide the commissioners through an investigation into whether Washington Gas properly used funds budgeted in 2003 to replace equipment, 13 years before the same type of equipment contributed to the explosion.

“We’ve all been affected by this and the marks it has on us do not go away,” said Donaldo Mondoagon, a Flower Branch resident. “My question is why you didn’t prevent this tragedy.”

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This year, after a review that spanned years, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the explosion was caused by the failure of a mercury service regulator with an unconnected vent line, allowing natural gas into the meter room, where it ignited. The board said Washington Gas was responsible for ensuring the vent line was connected.

The regulators reduce the pressure of natural gas in piping to the level used in homes. The mercury seal is intended to act as a “relief valve” and serves as “overpressure protection,” according to Washington Gas documents.

At issue in the PSC investigation is whether Washington Gas should have replaced the mercury regulators more than a decade before the explosion.

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In 2003, Washington Gas pledged to replace nearly 67,000 mercury regulators within 10 years, according to the PSC filing. The PSC directed Washington Gas to explain “why the Commission should not impose a civil penalty” for not replacing the regulators and for “failing to use funds collected from ratepayers and approved for” the project.

The PSC in 2003 approved $654,000 for the project.

Washington Gas has publicly denied culpability for the explosion multiple times.

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Washington Gas officials were present during Tuesday’s hearing and met with residents one on one to discuss concerns.

It was clear on Tuesday night how much some residents are still affected.

Several said they or their children still attend therapy. Sometimes, they smell gas on the property and said property management and Washington Gas officials don’t seem to take the claims seriously.

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Kieran Prospere said his wife still has flashbacks whenever a firetruck drives by.

A few weeks ago, he was at work when she called and said there was a “strong smell of gas” in their apartment. She called 911. Emergency responders couldn’t locate the smell, but three hours later, a Washington Gas official came and found the source, Prospere said.

“She was just getting back to cooking and it retraumatized her,” he said. “This community is still living afraid another tragedy could happen.”

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Cjacek Orzechowski, a pastor, said a man who survived the explosion and rescued a family from the ensuing fire became depressed. He died by suicide last year.

Nancy Weber, a woman who lives two blocks from the apartments, said she became close with a man who survived the explosion. He was visiting his aunt and uncle, who both died in the explosion.

“He was sitting there with them and then all of the sudden, he was blown out of the glass door of the apartment and was lying on the grass,” Weber said through tears. “The trauma of that, you can’t imagine. Please, please, please take care of things and don’t let anything like this happen again.”

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Del. Lorig Charkoudian, a Democrat from Takoma Park, said Washington Gas “needs to be held accountable” for the explosion and should be required to replace the mercury regulators at “a cost to the company and not the ratepayers.”

“Those regulators should have been replaced and had those been replaced as approved by the commission, this explosion would not have happened,” she said. “For that reason, Washington Gas needs to be held accountable.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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