Explosion Levels Home on Ashley Drive in Randolph Hills

One man unaccounted for in Rockville explosion; fire chief says there was unauthorized gas use


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Investigators work at the scene of a home explosion in the Randolph Hills neighborhood

Joe Zimmermann

Updated - 5 p.m. - An explosion leveled a home in the Randolph Hills area in southern Rockville just before 1 a.m. Friday morning, launching debris into at least a dozen other area homes.

Fire department spokesman Pete Piringer said one male resident of the home at 11422 Ashley Dr. is unaccounted for.

“Firefighters arrived to find a single-family home with complete blast explosion damage—a burning rubble pile, very large debris field and multiple nearby homes damaged,” Piringer said.

Debris from the blast was found as far as 600 yards away, Piringer said. The blast damaged homes on the block and across the street, some windows were blown out, and several vehicles were also damaged. One nearby home was damaged so significantly it was condemned, according to Piringer.

It took about 75 firefighters about 90 minutes to extinguish a blaze caused by the explosion.

Though rescue officials initially believed it wasn't a gas explosion, Piringer said they have not ruled it out. Officials initially believed the utilities were not on at the house so they thought a gas explosion was unlikely, but they are still investigating the cause.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, fire chief Scott Goldstein said the gas had been shut off to the house in 2015 but investigators found there had been unauthorized gas use at the address in recent months. He said they still do not know if it was a gas explosion or if there was another cause.

Piringer said the county’s 911 call center received dozens of calls from neighbors and others who had heard the explosion. Nearby residents posted on a neighborhood listserv that the blast rattled their homes.

"It was such a strong boom, my windows shook," one resident wrote. "I thought it was one of my solar panels exploding!"

Photos from the scene show bricks strewn throughout the area, debris covering vehicles and split pieces of wood littering the ground.

Goldstein told NBC 4 that the explosion was so loud the county received emergency calls from Bethesda residents who reported feeling the blast.

Debris left by the explosion. Via Pete Piringer on Twitter

While neighboring homes were damaged by debris, no neighbors have been reported injured, although some have been relocated, according to Piringer.

Karen Burkett, a real estate agent with Re/Max, told Bethesda Beat Friday morning that the house was scheduled to be for sale at a public auction at the courthouse in Rockville at 3:30 p.m. today.

Maryland real estate records list Steve M. Beck as the owner of the property.

This isn’t the first time a home exploded in the area.

Piringer said in 2011 a couple was severely injured in a gas explosion in the 11200 block of Ashley Drive after the homeowner disconnected a gas dryer, but didn’t cap the line. The homeowners were attempting to convert the dryer from gas to electric, according to reports at the time.

It's not yet clear what role, if any, gas played in the early Friday morning blast.

At the scene, crews were digging up and shutting off gas lines in the neighborhood early Friday morning as a precaution. Neighbors described the home as looking old and abandoned.

Debris covering a vehicle and the exploded home on the right. Credit: Joseph Zimmermann

Jennifer Tifford, a resident of Ashley Drive, said in an interview with Bethesda Beat that her family was awoken by the blast. She lives about three blocks away from the home, but just six houses from the home that exploded in 2011.

"It was one of those things where instantaneously you knew something major happened because we experienced it six years ago," Tifford said. "It was familiar, being woken up by an explosion." 

She said her husband, Matt Tifford, who is the president of the Randolph Hills Civic Association, went outside with their 14-year-old daughter after the blast to see what happened.

"It was odd because we had been through it before and to have to experience it again, right in the same area was unusual," Ashley Tifford said. "Another part of it that's not noticed is the amount of debris. It covers such a large area and the house is just not there anymore. It was in an instant, it was gone. Hopefully the man is OK."

Matt Tifford said when he walked near the house he saw, "flames shooting up into the sky, lots of smoke and emergency vehicles tearing through the neighborhood trying to get there as fast as possible."

He said neighbors were gathered together outside discussing what happened.

"There was a lot of of speculation about how [an explosion] could happen again," Tifford said. He described the property as "somewhat in disrepair" and that it had bamboo growing on it and rusty cars on the lot.

Investigators haven’t yet determined what caused the explosion. K9s that search for cadavers and explosives have been brought to the site to conduct a search. The office of the Maryland State Fire Marshal tweeted around 8 a.m. that the agency was sending its Major Incident Response Team to the scene to aid in the investigation.

At the Friday afternoon press conference, Goldstein said the resident of the home was still unaccounted for and the cause of the explosion was still unknown. Dogs had been brought in through the day to search for accelerants, explosives and cadavers, and rescue workers found a personal supply of weapons in the house that the owner possessed legally.

The explosion damaged the window at a nearby home. Credit: Joseph Zimmermann

Karin and Chris Gwin who live about a mile away on Macon Road woke up and heard an sound so loud they thought it came from their own home or nearby.

"At first thought maybe it was snow coming down, we have a metal roof," Karin Gwin said. "It was loud it was very loud."

Kirk Rubin, who lives on nearby Wyaconda Road, said he and his wife woke up to the whole house shaking thinking something had hit their home.

"We jumped up," he said. "I thought it was an earthquake, she thought we were at war."

Matt Tifford said the neighborhood is a diverse community with homes that are all essentially the same model that were built in the late 1950s. He said the civic association may look for ways to help the immediate neighbors of the property, whose homes suffered damage in the explosion. He noted that when the previous explosion occurred in 2011, some neighbors had to live in a hotel for awhile.

"From all appearances, severe damage occurred," Tifford said. "It's likely that neighboring homes are not suitable for habitation at the moment. In 2011, the homes on either side of the exploded home had foundation damage."

This story will be updated when more information is provided or obtained.

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