Lawyers: Residents smelled gas for months leading up to Dunwoody apartment explosion

DeKalb County firefighters clear debris from the Arrive Perimeter apartment complex in Dunwoody after an explosion damaged the building Sunday afternoon.

Combined ShapeCaption
DeKalb County firefighters clear debris from the Arrive Perimeter apartment complex in Dunwoody after an explosion damaged the building Sunday afternoon.

Jasmine Johnson was still in bed Sunday afternoon when her dog began barking and jolted her awake.

The 30-year-old resident of the Arrive Perimeter apartment complex got up to see what was wrong. Moments later, an explosion shook her entire building, an emotional Johnson said Thursday morning. The screen door was ripped off her balcony and the impact of the blast threw into the wall of her second-story unit, she told reporters at a downtown Atlanta law office.

The weekend explosion injured at least four people and left others without a place to stay, utility and fire officials said this week. But Chris Stewart, an Atlanta attorney representing Johnson and five other residents, said tenants had complained for months about smelling gas in the parking garage and hallways of the Dunwoody apartment complex.

Combined ShapeCaption
Jasmine Johnson (center) speaks about the explosion Thursday morning along with two of her attorneys.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Jasmine Johnson (center) speaks about the explosion Thursday morning along with two of her attorneys.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Jasmine Johnson (center) speaks about the explosion Thursday morning along with two of her attorneys.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

“What happened never should have occurred,” Stewart said. “The complex and its management company played Russian roulette with the lives of countless individuals.”

Johnson, who is training to become a flight attendant, said she complained about the smell to her roommate for two or three days leading up to Sunday’s explosion.

“I’ve been smelling that smell around the apartment for weeks, months,” she said. “But it was so strong three days prior to the incident.”

Explore‘Fuel line issues’ found at Dunwoody apartments that exploded, officials say

She injured her shoulder in the blast and will need surgery, according to her attorneys, who say they plan to file a lawsuit against the complex and property management company.

Johnson, who moved in last February, credits her dog, Charmed, with waking her up just before the explosion.

“She was going crazy and I thought maybe she wanted to go to the dog park,” she said. “She was whimpering, whining. She doesn’t really whimper like that so I knew something was wrong. ... I remember looking at my dog. Then there was a huge explosion and I was thrown into the wall.”

After the blast, Johnson grabbed Charmed and rushed out of the apartment. On her way outside, she ran into a neighbor who was going back upstairs to check on her children. The woman was covered in blood and pleaded with Johnson to call 911, she said.

“I asked her what happened and she said, ‘The whole apartment building’s gone,’” Johnson said, sobbing.

When she got outside, Johnson said she saw dozens of dazed residents. Many of them mentioned the strong smell of natural gas around their building in the days leading up to the explosion. One man was lying on the ground with his leg “contorted,” Johnson said, adding that it was clearly broken.

Combined ShapeCaption
Sunday's explosion at the Arrive Perimeter complex also damaged the leasing center.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Sunday's explosion at the Arrive Perimeter complex also damaged the leasing center.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Sunday's explosion at the Arrive Perimeter complex also damaged the leasing center.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Stewart said residents who had previously complained about the smell were told by the apartment’s management that they needed to call the gas company. Others never even heard back, according to Madeleine Simmons, another partner at the law firm.

“The fact that an apartment complex and their management company would not fix complaints of gas (leaks), which you know can lead to an explosion, is beyond reckless,” Stewart said. “Get a maintenance man out there to fix it.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reached out to Arrive Perimeter management several times for comment but has not heard back.

An Atlanta Gas Light technician was actually en route to the apartment complex Sunday as the blast occurred, causing a partial collapse of one of the complex’s three buildings. Of the four residents who were injured, one had a severe burn and one suffered a broken leg, DeKalb County fire officials said. Two others were treated for minor injuries.

Sherelle Baker, 26, considers herself lucky to be alive after debris from the building ripped through her car and knocked her unconscious, she said Thursday. The Powder Springs resident had just pulled into the complex for a work meeting when the explosion occurred.

“I arrived early and was just getting ready to get out of my car,” she said. “Before I could even open my door, it happened.”

Baker remembers waking up moments later to a woman screaming in the car next to hers. She had just come out of the building and gotten into her vehicle when the blast occurred.

Baker’s mother came and picked her up at the scene. She went to the hospital the following day and was diagnosed with a concussion, she said.

“My back hurts pretty bad and my head is still killing me,” said Baker, who is being represented by another law firm.

A spokeswoman for Atlanta Gas Light said the company was told to shut off gas to the entire complex after discovering “appliance and fuel line issues within the buildings” during an initial inspection.

As of Thursday, gas remained shut off to the more than 400 units in the complex, Dunwoody city spokeswoman Jennifer Boettcher told the AJC. Before the gas can be reconnected, the apartment complex must have someone inspect the appliances in each unit.

“In every unit, they’re checking the kitchen range, the furnace, the water heater and the fireplace to make sure there’s no leaks, all the fittings are secure and there’s a verified shutout valve,” she said.

Crews must also conduct system pressure checks on the gas lines before the utility is reconnected.

Stewart said many of the displaced residents are staying in hotel rooms for now, though some don’t have the money to pay up front. Others with pets are remaining in their homes because many of the hotels in the area don’t allow dogs, he said.

“They’re not going to abandon their animals,” Stewart said.

But Johnson isn’t sure she’ll ever return home.

“Your home is supposed to be your safety net, but I don’t want to go back to that place,” she said.