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Speeches

Opening Statement, Gas Pipeline Explosion, Silver Spring, MD, August 10, 2016
Robert L. Sumwalt
Washington, DC
4/23/2019

Good morning and welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board.

I am Robert Sumwalt, and I’m honored to serve as the Chairman of the NTSB. Joining us are my colleagues on the Board: Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg, Member Earl Weener, and Member Jennifer Homendy.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider a gas pipeline related building explosion and fire in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the night of August 10, 2016. The explosion caused a 14-unit apartment building to partially collapse. A second building sustained substantial damage. Residents of both buildings were evacuated, and many residents of nearby buildings voluntarily self-evacuated.

Tragically, the accident took the lives of seven people; Of the survivors, 65 residents and three firefighters were transported to the hospital.

On behalf of my colleagues on the Board and the entire NTSB, I would like to offer our sincerest condolences to the families and friends of the seven people who were lost. We also wish for the most complete recovery possible for everybody injured in the accident.  

We know that this accident investigation has taken more than two years, and that longer investigations can add to frustration on the part of survivors and family, during a time already marked by pain and loss.

But please understand that the goal of NTSB safety investigations is to improve safety and prevent future accidents, so that others are spared future pain and loss.

Meeting this goal with confidence takes time. Given the challenges of this investigation, investigators have had to work even harder to consider and eliminate all factors that may have caused the explosion.

We hope that our work in this investigation honors those lost and injured in the accident through recommendations which, if acted on, would prevent future tragedies that echo the Silver Spring explosion and fire.

In a moment, investigators will provide details of how the accident unfolded.

They will also explain how a communication gap might have resulted in missed opportunities to detect and repair the failure.

Six times in the weeks and months preceding the accident, residents reported a natural gas smell to Kay Management. In each case, maintenance staff reported that they did not detect gas or attributed the smell to the painting of apartments.

Two weeks before the accident, a resident called 9-1-1 to report a gas odor. The fire department, unable to access the accident building’s basement meter room, did not detect gas.

On August 10, the night of the accident, the same resident again smelled gas; but before he could act, the explosion occurred.

In the lead-up to the accident, and indeed for five years prior, there is no evidence that residents, Kay Management, or any emergency personnel notified Washington Gas of a gas odor. Generally, WG technicians have the expertise and equipment to identify methane at lower concentrations.

We’ll also consider the installation of fixed methane detectors that go beyond the literal smell test. The odorant in natural gas provides some warning. But methane detector alarms can provide a reliable additional safeguard.

Finally, we will discuss the placement of mercury service regulators, features intended to safely vent excess gas outside of the building—rather than let it build up in an interior space.

Staff has pursued all avenues in proposing findings, a probable cause, and recommendations to the Board.

The order of the meeting will be that the NTSB staff will briefly present pertinent facts and analysis found in the draft report.  We on the Board will then question staff. We will also propose and vote on any amendments necessary to ensure that the report as adopted truly provides the best opportunity to enhance safety.

Our public docket, available at www.ntsb.gov, contains additional information, including photos and postaccident interviews. Once finalized, the accident report will also be available on our website.

Now, Managing Director Sharon Bryson, if you would kindly introduce the staff.