City Hall

'It Was Just Chaos': Dallas Apartment Explosion Leaves Hundreds Displaced

Avi Adelman
Dallas Fire-Rescue, the Dallas Police Department, the Railroad Commission of Texas and Atmos are investigating the cause of an explosion that collapsed a portion of this apartment building in Oak Cliff.
In Oak Cliff's Highland Hills Apartments, residents had smelled gas the night before a blast rocked the apartment complex and displaced hundreds. The next morning, before the explosion, Dallas Fire-Rescue came to check for a potential gas leak. In the middle of their investigation, the place lit up.

Jennifer Duncan, who lives in the complex, was out working that morning. Her children were at school. But her disabled mother was still at the apartment waiting for her caretaker to arrive.

“She gives me this call, frantic, hollering and screaming saying, ‘The apartment just exploded next to us. It just exploded.’” Before Duncan could even respond, “Boom! I hear another explosion in the background,” she said. “Now [my mom is] saying she can’t breathe and she’s choking. It was just chaos.”

Duncan’s mother made it out, but now her whole family, like the rest of the residents at the complex, is  without a home. About 300 residents from 200 households were affected. The blast left part of the two story apartment building collapsed. The rest of the building would later be demolished because it was too unstable. Neighboring apartments that received damage were also evacuated.

Jason Evans, a DFR spokesperson, said at a press conference near the complex, “Unfortunately, there were four firefighters within proximity of the explosion when it occurred. All four of them were injured and have been taken to the hospital.”

Three residents were also taken to the hospital with injuries. All of the residents have since been released from the hospital. As of Friday, three firefighters were still in the hospital in critical but stable conditions. Evans said local, state and federal officials are investigating to determine the cause of the explosion.

“Once I got there and heard it was a gas leak, I became not sad … I became furious because the residents have been saying we smell gas for the longest [time],” Duncan said.

Her mother had reported a gas smell to the apartment complex in August, Duncan said, but there didn’t seem to be any response to the problem. Even when she would make routine maintenance requests, she would mention the natural gas odor, but the smell persisted.

“What is coming? What do we do?” – Jennifer Duncan, Dallas resident

tweet this
When the Observer first reached out to the apartment complex’s management office, they said, “We have no comment,” and then hung up the phone. When we called back and asked about previous reports of natural gas odors at the complex, they said they had no comment and hung up again.

In a written statement released the day of the explosion, Atmos said it didn’t find any problems with gas lines in the area.

“After verifying that gas was shut off to the meter that supplies the apartment complex, our highly trained technicians began performing safety checks of Atmos Energy’s system,” the company said in a statement. “Atmos Energy has verified that our system is operating as expected, and we have found no indication that our system was involved.

Atmos added, “The safety of our community is our highest priority, and our crews remain on site to work to assist emergency responders. Our thoughts and prayers are with the firefighters and residents who were injured.”

The Philadelphia-based Mountain Creek Apts LP owns the complex. In a written statement to The Dallas Morning News, the owner said they were “in the process of gathering information and awaiting the fire department’s report on the cause” of the explosion. They also said property managers were helping find accommodations for displaced residents.

But Duncan said no such accommodations have been made for her family. “Since this has happened, no one from the office has reached out with so much as a ‘Sorry for your loss. Are you guys OK?’” she explained.

She said her mother has been trying to get in touch with some of the property managers to see if she can get her heart medication from the wreckage. “No one’s responding to us,” she said. “No one is even answering the phone over there, and I think it’s ridiculous.”

“It’s going to be a marathon." – Tramonica Brown, Not My Son Dallas

tweet this
After the explosion, displaced residents hung around the property waiting to see what the next move was. Organizations such as Not My Son Dallas brought food and water for the displaced residents. Around 9 p.m. that night, they were finally taken to the Tommy M. Allen Recreation Center, where The Red Cross set up a reception area for residents to collect food and vouchers for hotel stays. The vouchers were originally for 72 hours, but they'll be extended.

Most residents were taken to the Cambria Hotel while the rest went to the Fairfield Inn & Suites. Both hotels are downtown, far from their neighborhood. Dallas’ Office of Emergency Management has staff on site at the hotels. Dallas Animal Services is also relocating pets to be with their owners and providing crates, food and toys as needed. Emergency Management staff are also looking into more long-term solutions for displaced residents.

During Winter Storm Uri, Not My Son Dallas helped find shelter for 600 families. They’ve been preparing for the next disaster ever since. When the explosion happened Wednesday morning, the organization leaped into action.

“We already had a shelter-in-place situation ready to go, so we just immediately went over to make sure that all of the residents were placed,” said Tramonica Brown, founder and executive director of Not My Son Dallas. People with the organization stayed at the recreation center Wednesday night until every last person was placed into a hotel.

“I’m from Dallas, born and raised,” Brown said. “I always say that it is our job to sweep our own porch first. As a community of Dallas as a whole, we have to make sure that we’re loving thy neighbor.”

She said some people have lost everything. “It’s truly made people displaced and on top of that, life still has to go on for those people,” she said. “They still have to go to work every day. It’s a very traumatizing and traumatic experience.”

More than anything else, residents need clothes, she said. On Friday, Brown was on her way to drop off gift cards for residents to buy new clothes. Then, their main focus will be making sure everyone has somewhere to stay and that children can go to school next week.

“It’s going to be a marathon,” Brown said.

Duncan said residents have been told they’ll be able to go back to the property with DFR to collect their belongings. “But the property is damaged. Everything smells like smoke,” Duncan said. “I don’t know what we’re going to get. What is the use of it?”

Her family’s clothes and electronics are the least of her worries. Duncan wants to make sure to get her sentimental items back, whether they're destroyed or not.

“My uncle's ashes are in there, for one. I have family photos and obituaries for my grandmother,” she said. “My boyfriend has his father's pictures in there. He never met his dad. He was deceased before he was able to know about him. So, we can’t lose that stuff. Whether it’s smoked out, chalked up, stuck together, whatever it is, we want those things.”

Duncan and others don’t know what the future holds for them. “The city is trying to help us. I’m not knocking them, but what is next?” Duncan said. “What is coming? What do we do?”