Gas explosions trigger deadly chaos in Massachusetts

  • The house owned by Officer Ivan Soto sits nearly burned to the ground on Jefferson Street, in Lawrence, Mass., on Friday. AP

  • The house owned by Officer Ivan Soto sits nearly burned to the ground on Jefferson Street, in Lawrence, Mass., on Friday. AP

Published: 9/14/2018 6:28:15 PM

Deadly gas-line explosions tore through several communities north of Boston on Thursday, setting dozens of homes on fire, forcing evacuations across three towns, seriously injuring 10 people and leaving one man dead after a piece of chimney fell on his car.

Hours later – after a traumatic afternoon of fiery chaos turned into a night of eerie darkness with power shut off for thousands – officials were still unsure exactly what caused the blasts, or when it would be safe for the evacuated residents of Lawrence, North Andover and Andover to return home.

But investigators had begun to zero in on the potential cause of the explosions: over-pressurization of a gas main owned by Columbia Gas, which had been upgrading equipment in the area, according to Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal’s office.

Before the explosions on Thursday, Columbia Gas notified customers that it would be “upgrading natural gas lines in neighborhoods across the state,” and said that the move would bring increased reliability and “enhanced safety features.”

A short time later, state police received between 60 and 100 reports of structure fires and gas explosions in the three communities, and fire crews battled dozens of simultaneous blazes.

“It looked like Armageddon,” Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield told reporters.” There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see plumes of smoke in front of me. ... It just looked like an absolute war zone.”

Authorities reported one fatality, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who died after an explosion sent a chimney crashing into his car.

“He was too young, too young to die,” his uncle, Carlos Rondon, told The Washington Post on Friday. “He was just starting his life.”

Nearby, North Andover residents Amanda Morera and Nick Kennedy said they watched another neighbor stagger out of his house after a small explosion. The man was not injured, they said, but looked stunned.

“He was wicked shocked,” Morera said. “Who wouldn’t be?”

At least 8,600 customers of Columbia Gas in the Merrimack region were ordered to leave their homes immediately, and the National Grid electric company quickly announced plans to cut off all related power to prevent additional sparks.

“If you have not evacuated, you have to go. Don’t wait for there to be a fire. Trust us when we tell you, if you stay in your homes, you are at risk,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera urged. “Get out of your house and go north of the river.”

The sudden explosions and dire warnings set the entire region on edge. Even people in undamaged homes with working utilities piled suitcases, bikes and pets into vehicles, on their way to stay anywhere else with family and friends. The smell of smoke was pervasive for miles.

Local authorities were unable to offer information about when residents would be cleared to return home. Andover Police tweeted that power would be out until at least 9 a.m. Saturday.

In an update Friday, Columbia Gas said it was “working with the appropriate authorities to investigate this incident in order to understand its cause.” Crews, the company said, would need to visit each of the 8,600 affected customers, shut off their gas and then conduct a safety inspection. Just before noon, authorities said crews had gone door-to-door and turned off gas to approximately 3,500 customers overnight, but thousands remained.

Still, the gas company warned residents in affected areas Friday: “Please do not enter your house unless you are accompanied by a gas company representative.”

They also cautioned residents to refrain from turning on gas meters without authorization. An impatient person with a wrench could inadvertently spark another explosion.

The National Transportation Safety Board has launched an investigation into the explosions, chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a Friday morning news conference. The agency, whose purview includes incidents involving pipelines, is “looking at the design of the pipeline system, any maintenance or upgrades that are in the process of being done,” Sumwalt said.

At shelters in safe areas, displaced residents swapped stories of close calls.

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