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‘We’re very lucky today’: 16 children in DC day care safely evacuated before building explodes

Two buildings exploded in Southeast D.C. on Thursday morning after a gas leak. D.C. Fire and EMS tells WTOP that both buildings were evacuated before the explosions.

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Two buildings explode in Southeast DC after gas leak, firefighters fighting blaze

Sixteen young children in a Southeast D.C. day care facility were safely evacuated by firefighters responding to a gas leak Thursday morning — just moments before a series of explosions rocked the strip of storefronts in historic Anacostia.

None of the children were injured, D.C. Fire Chief John Donnelly told reporters during a briefing Thursday.

“All 16 of those children are safe, and they’ve been reunited with their families,” Donnelly said.

One person on the street was hurt by flying debris and taken to the hospital with minor injuries.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Fire Chief John Donnelly brief reporters following the building explosion. (WTOP/John Domen)
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Fire Chief John Donnelly brief reporters following the building explosion.
(WTOP/John Domen)

WTOP/John Domen

D.C. firefighters battling the blaze in Anacostia on Jan. 18, 2023. (WTOP/John Domen)
D.C. firefighters battling the blaze in Anacostia on Jan. 18, 2023.
(WTOP/John Domen)

WTOP/John Domen

Lt. Ryan Bolton with D.C. Fire and EMS was one of the first firefighters on the scene. (WTOP/John Domen)
Lt. Ryan Bolton with D.C. Fire and EMS was one of the first firefighters on the scene.
(WTOP/John Domen)

WTOP/John Domen

D.C. firefighters battling the blaze in Anacostia on Jan. 18, 2023. (WTOP/John Domen)
D.C. firefighters battling the blaze in Anacostia on Jan. 18, 2023.
(WTOP/John Domen)

WTOP/John Domen

D.C. firefighters battling the blaze in Anacostia on Jan. 18, 2023. (WTOP/John Domen)
D.C. firefighters battling the blaze in Anacostia on Jan. 18, 2023.
(WTOP/John Domen)

WTOP/John Domen

D.C. firefighters battling the blaze in Anacostia on Jan. 18, 2023. (WTOP/John Domen)
D.C. firefighters battling the blaze in Anacostia on Jan. 18, 2023.
(WTOP/John Domen)

WTOP/John Domen

Fire in Southeast D.C. after a gas leak caused an explosion.
(Courtesy DC Fire and EMS)

Courtesy DC Fire and EMS

One building — a convenience store in the 1200 block of Marion Barry Avenue SE, which was next door to the day care center — was completely leveled in the blast. Two other buildings, including the day care, sustained damage.

“We are just very grateful that we believe everyone is safe,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at the news conference. “I had the opportunity to be briefed by the chief and to get a firsthand look at the at the damage — and I think we’re very lucky today.”

She praised the quick work of firefighters in safely evacuating the buildings.

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

Quick evacuation

The fire chief said firefighters were called to Marion Barry Avenue about 9:30 a.m. for the report of an outside gas leak. He said it appears a car had crashed into an outside gas meter.

Lt. Ryan Bolton was one of the first firefighters on the scene and served as the incident commander.

He said when first responders arrived, they could hear and smell the gas leak. But when they weren’t immediately able to shut the gas off, Bolton was one who made the call to quickly evacuate the buildings.

Bolton said he was simply following standard training.

“We all know natural gas is flammable,” Bolton told reporters. “We all know that it doesn’t take anything more than a spark to ignite it. In this case, we were able to smell the gas in the street, making us believe that the gas that was building up inside the buildings would be even at a higher level. So we just wanted to make sure that everybody was out of the buildings and out of the block as quickly as we could.”

He said the day care staff was already working on getting children into their coats and into strollers when firefighters arrived.

Bolton estimated it took about 15 minutes from firefighters arriving on the scene to fully evacuate all the buildings.

Not long after — about 25 minutes after the 911 call about the gas leak — the first explosion occurred in the building housing the day care. That knocked out windows on the second floor and created what Donnelly called a “flash fire.”

A short time later, a secondary explosion occurred at the convenience store, Donnelly said, which was completely blown out.

Crews were still working on putting out the fire as of shortly after noon and working with Washington Gas to get the gas shut off.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Robin McKinney, who lives in the neighborhood, said she was walking her dogs before work Thursday morning when she smelled the telltale foul odor of natural gas.

By the time she got home, she said there were already calls and emails that had been shared through an email chain for the neighborhood.

The blast “looked like something out of a movie,” she said. “I never seen that much smoke.”

She praised firefighters for their speedy efforts at evacuating the day care and the other buildings.

She said the children were taken to a restaurant around the corner for a meal where their parents could pick them up.

She said the focus now is working with the mayor’s office on securing a new, safe space for the children to continue to attend day care.

“Parents have to go to work … and we want to make sure these parents are able to go to work tomorrow,” she said.

WTOP’s John Domen contributed to this report from Southeast D.C.

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