NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Gas-line explosions tore through several communities Thursday, setting homes on fire, forcing evacuations in three towns and leaving at least 10 people hospitalized. And hours later — after an 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.
Authorities reported one fatality, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who died after an explosion sent a chimney crashing into his car, according to the Associated Press.
State police received between 60 and 100 reports of structure fires and gas explosions in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover, spurring neighboring fire and police departments to send officers to help. Among them were Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon, who told Western Massachusetts News that the fires were so widespread “you can’t even see the sky.”
North Andover residents Amanda Morera and Nick Kennedy said they watched a neighbor stumble 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?”
The couple were still deciding whether to leave after the emergency workers told them they were better off elsewhere. They said they were probably going to spend the night with a family member in Haverhill.
At least 8,000 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 said at a news conference. “Get out of your house and go north of the river.”
Concerned with public safety, local authorities were unable to offer information about when residents would be cleared to return home. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), who called the power company’s response “adequate,” concluded the news conference with two questions he wanted answered: When can people whose homes didn’t burn return? And when can people have power back on?
Andover resident Mac Daniel said he was cooking tacos for dinner when he got the first warning around 5 p.m. to turn off his gas. A second message a few minutes later told him to evacuate the home he shares with his 16-year-old son.
“Everybody was suddenly milling about outside of their homes, trying to figure out what to do and where to go,” said Daniel, a communications consultant. As he and his son left, he said, he saw emergency vehicles from at least a half-dozen towns, including from over the state line in New Hampshire. Walking on Main Street in Andover, he said, he could see plumes of black smoke from nearby Lawrence.
“That’s a city that’s seen really, really hard times, and to have something like this happen is horrible,” he said.
He and his son went to stay with his ex-wife on the other side of town. Electricity had been cut off to her house, too, but because she doesn’t have gas service, she did not have to evacuate.
“We’re in the dark, candles burning,” he said. “People are just kind of holing up where they can. The big question we’re all asking is how did this happen? How can 100 homes suddenly explode? We’ll find the answers, but it’s very, very strange.”
Billows of black smoke are what first alerted Phil DeCologero, a North Andover resident and member of its Board of Selectmen, to the emergency. The town, he told The Washington Post, was swarmed with fire engines, buzzing helicopters and wailing sirens.
“More than a dozen houses in North Andover went up in flames,” said DeCologero, including one located across from a multifamily house attached to a day-care center. “We’re a 30,000-person town, 27 square miles. Given the number of fires, no municipality twice our size would be able to absorb that kind of catastrophe all at once.”
Massachusetts State Police dispatched troopers earlier to secure the affected areas and help traffic snarled by panicked residents fleeing their neighborhoods during the evening rush hour. The National Transportation Safety Board also sent out an investigative team.
Lawrence General Hospital is treating 10 patients injured in connection with the explosions, said Jill McDonald Halsey, chief of marketing and communication. “We are in emergency management activation mode and are ready for any more that come.”
Columbia Gas announced earlier Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions happened.
Natural gas pipelines can explode for a number of reasons, said Glen Stevick, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineer and is a consultant at Berkeley Engineering and Research. Pipelines can be damaged during construction or they can be old, ill-maintained and have structural flaws.
A pipe that’s in good shape should be able to handle twice the strength it normally operates, he said. Still, Massachusetts State Police announced that gas lines were being depressurized by Columbia Gas after the explosions.
“Most pipes are expected to take more than three times the pressure that they operate at, but over time there can be damage that weakens the pipes,” Stevick said. “It’s possible there’s some reason to increase pressure. Usually that means there are areas they suspect the pipe might be experiencing corrosion or it’s very old. If you keep a good database of your pipes and periodically hydro test, it’s the safest way to transport any fuel but it does take some diligence.”