It had been two weeks since a building maintenance worker at Friendly Garden Apartments accidentally cut a gas line, creating a large gas bubble in a basement that exploded with two large booms. Clothes, shoes and bike parts were tossed on the branches of nearby trees as the fire spread through the complex in Silver Spring, Maryland, the last of the country’s low-income housing developments in ignite.
By noon, the four-story building across from Ochoa had collapsed. Laura, who has Down syndrome, was at home with her brother and carer when the blast happened. She escaped in pajamas and sandals.
Now, as Ochoa, 58, returned, their three-bedroom apartment was dark, looking cold and still. The electricity to his apartment building and two others was cut shortly after the incident. Upon entering her 33-year-old home, she felt the urge to open the windows and let the smoke out.
Residents had 30 minutes to remove what they wanted, the property management company said. There would be no extensions and no moving of heavy furniture, because even though building 2411 hadn’t been razed like 2405, the engineers were still saying it was structurally in poor condition and – in the future predictable – uninhabitable.
So Ochoa’s son, Alex, turned on his phone’s flashlight and headed to his room. Ochoa’s brother, Jose, opened a plastic garbage bag. Ochoa looked around the apartment, with its pale yellow walls and faux wood floors, wooden crosses and tulip paintings. It was the place where her three children had grown up, where she cared for people and where she was cared for in return. These were three decades of his life.
“I want to take it all,” Ochoa thought.
She checked her phone. Twenty-nine minutes remaining.
Of the affordable housing options in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country, Friendly Garden was considered the first.
The garden-style apartments were subsidized by HUD, meaning most tenants paid 30% of their gross income in rent. This was old but safe, quiet, and located far enough west that kids who lived here could attend public high schools in uptown Bethesda and Chevy Chase. Renters arrived from all over the world and stayed for decades.
There was Lucien Torchon, a longtime UPS driver visiting family in Haiti when his wife called to say the fire had taken “everything, everything” from their third-floor apartment: immigration papers, passports, birth certificates of children. There was Josephine Gyasi-Baaye, a Ghanaian immigrant who had just started classes to become a social worker, and Danna Carbajal, a gregarious Salvadoran who lived with her teenage son and two geckos.
In apartment 101 of building 2411 lived Jibreel and Tenima Seid, who moved from Ethiopia to suburban Maryland because they wanted their children to attend American schools. And next door lived Ochoa.
Originally from El Salvador, she moved to Friendly Garden in 1989 as a 25-year-old single mother of three. Her youngest son, Patrick, joined the Navy in 2018, but her two oldest sons, Alex and Laura, still lived with her in the $1,500-a-month unit. Ochoa had never considered leaving; Friendly Garden was the home she built in America, where she dressed to work at her $2,500-a-month job as a medical assistant, snuggled up to Laura and cooked dinners for her. large extended family.
“Our culture is tough. Latinos, we struggle and somehow manage,” Ochoa said. After the fire, they had to start over.
She and Laura, 38, moved into her aunt’s house, while Alex, 35, stayed with another relative. Sometimes, when Laura rattled off a list of things she had in Apartment 103, Ochoa felt the need to remind her that it was no longer her home. If Laura was silent afterwards, Ochoa would stroke her hair or the side of her arm.
“We’re fine, aren’t we?” she would say. “We are alive. We are safe.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, people living in low-income neighborhoods in the United States face significantly higher fire risks than those living in more affluent areas. In January, a crowded townhouse in Philadelphia caught fire, killing 12 people, including eight children. A week later, smoke engulfed a 19-story apartment building in the Bronx, killing 17 people, mostly African immigrants. Similar incidents have occurred in Silver Spring, one of the few remaining affordable housing enclaves inside the Beltway: In 2016, a faulty gas regulator caused an explosion in Flower Branch apartments, killing seven tenants.
Montgomery officials said it was a miracle there were no deaths at Friendly Garden, although there was a list of 161 people – 125 adults and 36 children – whom they considered to be “long-term displaced”. Between them, some tenants called him otherwise: homeless.
“It’s like starting over,” said Gyasi-Baaye, a mother of four who lived two stories above Ochoa.
Torchon, who lost his flat in the fire, said his wife was now jumping from loud noises and feeling dizzy in elevators. “We can never feel the same again as before,” he added.