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5 to 7 People Unaccounted for After Explosion at Maryland Apartment Building, Fire Officials Say

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NBC Washington(NBC WASHINGTON) - As many as seven people are unaccounted for after an explosion rocked an apartment building in Silver Spring, Maryland, fire officials say.

Firefighters at a station about a mile away felt the explosion at the Flower Branch Apartments just before midnight Wednesday, Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said.

More than 160 fire and rescue workers were called to the Piney Branch Road complex to help battle the 3-alarm fire. As of Thursday morning, five to seven people were unaccounted for, according to Goldstein. The missing include men, women and children.

One woman at the scene told News4's Megan McGrath she was searching for her uncle after her calls to his cellphone went unanswered.

""He lived in the building that collapsed. We're here waiting and nobody tells us, nobody say anything to us," she said.

Thirty occupants of the building were transported to the hospital with severe to minor injuries, Goldstein said during a news conference Thursday morning. Three firefighters have non-life threatening injuries.

Montgomery County Fire Capt. Oscar Garcia said when firefighters arrived to the four-story building, they received reports of people trapped inside. The fire involved at least two or three buildings.

Firefighters made "numerous rescues" in heavy fire conditions, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue spokesman Pete Piringer said.

It's not clear whether the missing people are trapped inside the building or were away at the time of the fire.

Ninety people have been displaced from 28 apartments, Goldstein said.

The early morning explosion rocked the area around the large complex, with many saying they felt the explosion as far as a mile away.

Many residents described the fiery explosion as feeling like "un temblor," an earthquake. Others described seeing their home sway.

Wendy Loayes experienced the explosion firsthand; she escaped the burning building with the help of a stranger.

"The fire was next to me. I was so scared," the young girl said.

Loayes and her mother were going down the building's stairs when a stranger scooped Loayes up and took her to safety.

Loayes' mother says others in their building weren't so lucky. One of their neighbors is desperately searching for their young son; the boy hasn't been seen since the explosion.

While the official cause of the fire has not been released, one resident told News4's Derrick Ward he's been smelling gas for some time now.

"I've been smelling gas for weeks. I called 911, they came and told us it smelled like incense. That's pretty sad. It's like they didn't take us seriously," the man said.

But Goldstein said there was no prior reports of a problem at the involved buildings.

"We asked that of property management first thing this morning. No prior issues concerning the buildings. No prior responses from fire/rescue at these buildings," Goldstein said.

Goldstein said each unit has a natural gas furnace and cooktop.

The early morning fire tore through the large apartment complex just before midnight, causing significant structural damage and part of a building to collapse.

The force of the explosion blew debris into a parking lot across the street from the complex. The debris field indicates an explosion, Piringer said.

At about 2 a.m., Garcia said the fire was under control, but that there may be hot spots that are still burning underneath the collapse.

A gas company at the scene has controlled the gas, Piringer said.

Piringer said power lines nearby were also affected.

Residents should avoid the intersection of Piney Branch and Arliss Street, officials said.