Day care safely evacuated minutes before fiery blast leveled adjacent building

A Washington, D.C. day care center full of children was safely evacuated shortly before a gas explosion ignited a fire on the floor above and collapsed the building next door.

Fire and EMS Chief John Donnelly spoke with reporters Thursday at the scene of the fiery blast in the 1200 block Marion Barry Avenue as firefighters continued to douse the flames with water.

Crews responded to the busy southeast Washington neighborhood after receiving a call for a gas leak shortly after 9:30 a.m. The first responders determined that the leak was beyond repair and began evacuating buildings from the block. That quick thinking likely saved lives because about 25 minutes after that first 911 call, Donnelly said an explosion blasted the upper level of the two-story building where the day care was located.

“When I saw the building itself my mouth fell open,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser at the scene. “Because if the children had been in that building, they would have very definitely been impacted by that explosion.

The blast knocked out the windows of the building and ignited a fire. A second explosion happened at the adjacent convenience store, causing that building to collapse.

The explosions were likely caused by a gas leak from the exterior meter in front of the building, Donnelly said. It was not a leak that could be controlled after it was determined to be below the above ground shutoff. Donnelly said investigators believe the gas leak occurred after a vehicle struck the meter. 

“They’re well trained. They know what to do. They can smell the gas, and they immediately evacuated.” Donnelly said about the firefighters who first arrived on the scene. He said that decision absolutely saved lives.

All 16 of the children at the day care where the first explosion occurred were safely reunited with their families. “A really great job by first responders and the operators of the daycare. We’re really proud of them,” Donnelly said.

Lt. Ryan Bolton said his crew was one of the first to respond to the scene and said they heard and smelled gas leaking from the meter that had been reported damaged. He also praised the day care staff who he says were getting the children ready to evacuate even before firefighters arrived.

Bolton said only 15 minutes passed from the time they arrived to the time the first explosion occurred.

Donnelly said they fire spread to two-alarms and damaged a total of three buildings before it was contained. He said the department is working with Washington Gas to control the gas leak. Once the leak is controlled, he said, they will continue to put the fire out and conduct another search of the structures.

“I think we’re very lucky today.” Bowser said.

Only one person was injured in the blast when they were struck by flying debris during the explosion. Donnelly told reporters that the person’s injuries were considered minor.

DC gas explosion: 2-alarm fire, building collapse after blast on Marion Barry Avenue (DC Fire & EMS)

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