Officials work to pinpoint cause of 'Armageddon'-like blasts
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.
Series of gas explosions in Boston
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.
When he ran downstairs and saw the boiler on fire, he quickly grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out. Minutes later, Nam said he heard a loud boom from his neighbor's house and the ground shook. Nam said a woman and two kids had made it out of the house but the basement was on fire.
Lawrence General Hospital said it was treating 10 victims, including at least one in critical condition.
Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to be torn apart by blasts.
Joseph Solomon, the police chief in nearby Methuen, said 20 to 25 homes were on fire in Lawrence when he responded to help. He said there are so many fires "you can't even see the sky."
The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 26 miles (40 kilometers) north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border. Lawrence, the largest of them, is a majority Latino city with a population of about 80,000.
Gas explosions have claimed lives and destroyed property around the U.S. in recent years:
— A buildup of natural gas triggered an explosion and fire that killed seven people in apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2016.
— In 2014, a gas explosion in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood killed eight people and injured about 50. Consolidated Edison later agreed to pay $153 million to settle charges after the state's Public Service Commission found Con Ed violated state safety regulations. A gas leak had been reported before that blast.
— A 2011 natural gas explosion killed five people in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and that state's largest gas utility was fined by regulators who called the company's safety record "downright alarming."
— In September 2010, a Pacific Gas and Electric gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.
Associated Press writers Philip Marcelo in Lawrence, Alanna Durkin Richer and Collin Binkley in Boston and Mary Schwalm in North Andover contributed.