Officials work to pinpoint cause of 'Armageddon'-like blasts in Massachusetts
LAWRENCE, Mass. — Investigators were working Friday to pinpoint the cause of a series of natural gas explosions that killed a teenager, injured at least 10 others and left dozens of homes in smoldering ruins.
Authorities said an estimated 8,000 people were displaced at the height of Thursday's post-explosions chaos, though some were cleared to return to their homes in one of three towns north of Boston rocked by the disaster.
The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team to investigate, saying pipelines are within its jurisdiction.
The rapid-fire series of gas explosions that one official described as "Armageddon" ignited fires in at least 39 homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas and electricity. Gas remained shut off Friday in most of the area, and the streets were eerily deserted.
Authorities said Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died after a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car. He was rushed to a Boston hospital but pronounced dead there in the evening.
Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in the three communities to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening. Hundreds spent the night in shelters, and school was canceled Friday as families waited to return to their homes.
"It looked like Armageddon, it really did," Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield told reporters. "There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see pillars of smoke in front of me from the town of Andover."
Gov. Charlie Baker said state and local authorities were investigating but that it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers.
Early Friday, the utility issued a statement saying its crews need to visit each of the 8,600 affected customers to shut off each gas meter and conduct a safety inspection.
"We expect this will be an extended restoration effort, and we will work tirelessly to restore service to the affected customers," the statement said.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized but said investigators were still examining what happened.
Columbia had announced earlier Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions happened. It was not clear whether work was happening there Thursday, and a spokeswoman did not return calls.
Lawrence resident Bruce Razin was among the evacuees standing outside the Colonial Heights neighborhood near the city's high school trying to decide what to do next late Thursday.
Officials had cut power in the area and the streets were pitch black, save for emergency vehicle lights. Razin said he arrived just as residents were being evacuated, and immediately saw the house two doors down was leveled from an explosion.
"I couldn't imagine if that was my house," said Razin, who purchased his home nearly two years ago. "It's total destruction. I'd be completely devastated."
With a backpack filled with personal items he had hastily grabbed, he said he'd head to his mother's home a few towns over for the night.
In Lawrence, a man whose neighborhood was among dozens that erupted in fire says he ran into his basement to find that the room was glowing. Resident Ra Nam says he was in his yard when the smoke detector in his basement went off around 4:30 p.m.