A house in a suburb of Washington, D.C. was leveled early Friday by a thunderous explosion that sprayed debris across nearby homes and could be felt from 4 miles away.
One man is unaccounted for after the blast on the 11000 block of Ashley Drive in Rockville, Maryland. Two cars in the driveway are his, neighbors said.
The home was in foreclosure and was set to be auctioned off later in the day.
Video shot from Chopper4 late Friday morning showed a heap of broken bricks and debris hardly distinguishable as having been a house. Cadaver-sniffing dogs worked through the rubble.
The damage is "catastrophic," Montgomery County fire department spokesman Pete Piringer said.
"It's just a pile of debris. it's just a pile of bricks. There's not anything left," he said.
Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said in an update Friday afternoon that Washington Gas shut off natural gas service to the house in June 2015. Investigators discovered on Friday, after the explosion that there had been "unauthorized gas use" inside the structure since December 2016.
But the fire chief said the cause of the blast and fire were still unknown.
"It's too early in the investigation to identify if there is something that contributed that was gas-related," he said.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are assisting in the probe.
Neighbors said they felt two ground-shaking booms about 12:40 a.m. People from as far away as Bethesda felt the blasts and called 911. On Ashley Drive, neighbors went outside and saw a huge fire. They ran toward the blaze to help.
"The people was running. I didn't understand what was happening," neighbor Angel Condorimay said.
Neighbors screamed into the fire, hoping to hear someone. But they heard nothing back, Condorimay said.
Firefighters were called to the scene just before 1 a.m. It took 75 firefighters about 20 minutes to control the blaze.
One house nearby was damaged so badly that Montgomery County declared it uninhabitable. Nine additional houses were damaged, as well as nine cars.
The powerful jolt shook many neighbors from their sleep, including Luzia Ricci.
"I could feel it underground,'' she said of the explosion in the neighborhood of modest, mostly one-story single family homes. "I was wondering, 'Are we having an earthquake?' But it was so short."
She went outside to see what was going on and could see the flames from her backyard. She started to go closer with her daughter, but then she heard another pop and backed away.
Authorities are still working to locate and speak with the man's family members. Neighbors said the resident lived alone in the brick house for decades.
His house, listed as his primary residence, was scheduled to be auctioned at 1:30 p.m. Friday, according to RealtyTrac, the company that would have auctioned it. Montgomery County court records show the foreclosure case was closed.
The debris field early Friday was so vast that a car across the street was covered in pieces of insulation, and pieces of debris hung in trees.
Neighboring homes were damaged, but no neighbors were reported injured. Crews boarded up windows blown out by the blast.
"...[W]e got calls down in Bethesda, people feeling the explosion itself," Goldstein said. Residents of Kensington also reported feeling the rumble.
The damage displaced several residents.
Gas Line Leak Likely Not a Cause of the Blast, Fire Chief Says
The cause of the explosion is under investigation. Both Pepco and Washington Gas cut service. Piringer said there were no reports of any gas leaks before the blast, and Goldstein said he did not believe authorized use of utilities was to blame.
The fire chief said there was no evidence that the explosion was set intentionally.
"There is no information we have that identifies an intentional act, [or a] malicious or suspicious circumstance to have contributed to this," Goldstein said.
In 2011, another home exploded on the same street, less than half a mile away. In that case, investigators attributed the blast to a gas leak when residents attempted to convert a clothes dryer from gas to electric. A man and a woman were blown from the home and suffered severe burns.
Washington Gas executive Douglas Staebler sought to assure neighbors that their natural gas service was safe to use.
"Their houses are safe. Their gas service is safe," he said.
Editor's Note: A photo briefly published with this story was uploaded erroneously.