She Had Been in the U.S. for Only Hours When an Explosion Changed Everything

She Had Been in the U.S. for Only Hours When an Explosion Changed Everything Bitseat Getaneh

Bitseat Getaneh told her mother she had had a serious accident, without any specifics. Her mother’s soft cries made it clear she knew better.

By Dan Morse (The Washington Post) |

Exhausted after an overseas flight from Ethiopia, Bitseat Getaneh lay down just before 9 p.m.

In the other room of Apartment 201 were friends of her family, also Ethio­pian but a couple she’d just met. The husband, a cabdriver, had picked her up at Dulles International Airport. His wife, a home health aide, had welcomed the 16-year-old with a huge Ethiopian dinner. They were waiting for a doctoral student, who also was staying with them, to come home.

he three would serve as Bitseat’s hosts in Silver Spring, Md., just north of Washington, while she adjusted to living for the first time outside her country. Then she’d be off to tiny Corn, Okla., to study at a Christian school for a year on a student visa.

In her bags: more than $6,000 cash for tuition. In her hopes: becoming a neurosurgeon.

Three hours later, a thunderous boom erupted. Searing heat woke Bitseat, who saw massive orange flames — Were they real? she wondered — eating up the darkness. She stumbled through the crumbling apartment.

“Please, God, save me,” she prayed aloud.

It was a year ago Thursday that the massive explosion — heard for miles, with fire four stories high — tore through the Flower Branch Apartments.

More than 100 residents, many working-class immigrants from Central America and Africa, escaped. They ran down smoke-filled stairs, tossed children off balconies to strangers below and were coaxed down firefighters’ ladders. Some were blown from apartments and landed relatively unharmed only to watch everything they owned be engulfed by fire.

Seven residents didn’t make it out. Their remains, found over several days by firefighters combing through rubble by hand, were unrecognizable. Forensic scientists pulled DNA samples as investigators tracked down close relatives to submit samples of their own — genetic markers that confirmed a loss that even today overwhelms brothers, sisters, children and parents left behind.

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