At 12:54 PM on Thursday, May 7, 2009, Prince George’s County Firefighter/Medics were dispatched on a call that no one is soon to forget. Firefighters were alerted to respond to the Penn-Mar Shopping Center, a large 1-story strip mall, in the 3400 Block of Donnell Drive in Forestville and arrived at 12:59 PM. First arriving crews initiated an investigation into a strong odor of natural gas inside the businesses. Firefighters evacuated 5 of the 6 stores that were in the area of the odor, a sixth store was vacant. Forty-five people were evacuated from the 5 stores and firefighters then started ventilation efforts and called for assistance of the Washington Gas Company. Firefighters discovered natural gas bubbling up from the ground on the exterior rear of the vacant store and minutes later reported that there was a fire on the interior. Within a minute, at about 1:20 PM, a massive explosion occurred. A MAYDAY call was sounded and additional resources including paramedics and a second alarm of firefighters were summoned to the scene.
Large plate glass windows blew shattered glass and other debris 60-70 feet into the front parking lot, the roof assembly appeared to have been lifted up and then fell back into place and the rear brick and block wall was completely blown out. Firefighters were in the direct line of the explosion and suffered burns and injuries from flying debris. Firefighters were wearing their personal protective gear which is believed to have minimized injuries. They quickly gathered themselves and checked on other crew members and civilians that may have been injured. A total of eight firefighters sustained a variety of injuries ranging from lacerations to second degree burns. Four Firefighters were transported to the Washington Hospital Center Burn Unit where two were treated and released and two were admitted for additional treatment. While initially transported with serious injuries, the firefighter’s conditions have been upgraded to “good.” Four other firefighters were transported to other area hospitals and were treated and released. One civilian, an employee of the Washington Gas Company was also treated and released from an area hospital. There were no injuries to any of the 45 evacuated civilians.
A small fire resulted from the explosion that was quickly contained and extinguished. The investigation so far has determined that the release of natural gas occurred in the vacant store and reached an ignition point that resulted in the explosion. The Fire/EMS Department’s Technical Rescue Team completed a through secondary post-blast search of the damaged stores confirming that everyone heeded the orders of first arriving firefighters to evacuate. Prince George's County Acting Fire Chief Eugene A. Jones arrived on the scene and surveyed the devastation and remarked, "As a Department we are thankful that the injuries our crews suffered are recoverable. As a community, we are fortunate that 45 lives were saved by firefighters doing their jobs. Overall, in consideration of the devastating destruction we are extremely fortunate that this was not a disaster."The exact cause of the release of natural gas and the source of ignition remain under investigation. The circumstances are said to be accidental and damage to the 6 stores is estimated at $2.5 million.
A drive-cam on-board Engine 826-District Heights captured video of the explosion.
Personnel admitted to Washington Hospital Center Burn Unit
Capt. Robert Rouse, Station 823-Forestville, 2nd degree burns to face and hands.
Volunteer Fire Fighter Greg Powell, Station 826-District Heights, injuries from flying debris
Treated and released from Washington Hospital Center Burn Unit
Fire Fighter Kelli Kivett, Station 823-Forestvile
Fire Fighter Rachel Edney, Station 805 –Capitol Heights
Transported to other area hospitals, treated and released
Lt. Richard Anderson, Station 826-District Heights
Capt. John Gatland, Station 805-Capitol Heights
Fire Fighter Curk Smart, Station 823-Forestville
Fire Fighter/Medic William Descutner, Station 805-Capitol Heights