'How did this happen?': Gas blasts set homes ablaze, triggering chaos

 
 
Updated 9/14/2018 6:57 AM
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  • Multiple fire trucks from surrounding communities arrive Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass., responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston.

    Multiple fire trucks from surrounding communities arrive Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass., responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston.

  • Firefighters battle a house fire, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, on Herrick Road in North Andover, Mass., one of multiple emergency crews responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston.

    Firefighters battle a house fire, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, on Herrick Road in North Andover, Mass., one of multiple emergency crews responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston.

  • Bruce Razin, 59, talks to his family on his cellphone outside his evacuated neighborhood Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass. Evacuations were ordered after a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston.

    Bruce Razin, 59, talks to his family on his cellphone outside his evacuated neighborhood Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass. Evacuations were ordered after a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston.

  • Ra Nam, right, with his sons Evan, left, and Tristan, center, wait in a parking lot outside their Colonial Heights neighborhood which was evacuated Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass., due to fires and explosions triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston.

    Ra Nam, right, with his sons Evan, left, and Tristan, center, wait in a parking lot outside their Colonial Heights neighborhood which was evacuated Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass., due to fires and explosions triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston.

  • A house is destroyed in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 after a series of gas explosions in the area. First-responders continued to fight at least 50 fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover Mass., Thursday. The fires are being attributed to problems with the natural gas system and officials are urging residents to leave their homes if they smell gas. (Carl Russo/The Eagle-Tribune via AP)

    A house is destroyed in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 after a series of gas explosions in the area. First-responders continued to fight at least 50 fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover Mass., Thursday. The fires are being attributed to problems with the natural gas system and officials are urging residents to leave their homes if they smell gas. (Carl Russo/The Eagle-Tribune via AP)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames burn through a home in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

    In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames burn through a home in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, firefighters battle a raging house fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews responded to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

    In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, firefighters battle a raging house fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews responded to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, firefighters battle a large structure fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

    In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, firefighters battle a large structure fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, firefighters battle a large structure fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

    In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, firefighters battle a large structure fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • Firefighters battle a house fire, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, on Herrick Road in North Andover, Mass., one of multiple emergency crews responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston.

    Firefighters battle a house fire, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, on Herrick Road in North Andover, Mass., one of multiple emergency crews responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston.

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames consume the roof of a home in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

    In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames consume the roof of a home in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames consume a home in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

    In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames consume a home in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, firefighters battle a raging house fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

    In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, firefighters battle a raging house fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • Police officers man a checkpoint as multiple fire trucks from surrounding communities are staged along a road Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass. A problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston triggered a series of gas explosions and fires.

    Police officers man a checkpoint as multiple fire trucks from surrounding communities are staged along a road Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass. A problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston triggered a series of gas explosions and fires.

  • Crews work to knock down a fire in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The company that owns Columbia Gas says its crews are performing safety checks after a series of fires and explosions erupted in three communities north of Boston. Authorities are blaming over-pressurized gas lines and previously told all residents with Columbia Gas service in those areas to evacuate. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via AP)

    Crews work to knock down a fire in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The company that owns Columbia Gas says its crews are performing safety checks after a series of fires and explosions erupted in three communities north of Boston. Authorities are blaming over-pressurized gas lines and previously told all residents with Columbia Gas service in those areas to evacuate. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via AP)

  • People cover their faces to protect themselves from heavy smoke from a fire on Bowdoin Street in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The company that owns Columbia Gas says its crews are performing safety checks after a series of fires and explosions erupted in three communities north of Boston. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via AP)

    People cover their faces to protect themselves from heavy smoke from a fire on Bowdoin Street in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The company that owns Columbia Gas says its crews are performing safety checks after a series of fires and explosions erupted in three communities north of Boston. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via AP)

  • Residents are seeking shelter at a senior center after a series of fires and explosions Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Andover, Mass. The company that owns Columbia Gas says its crews are performing safety checks after fires and explosions erupted in three communities north of Boston. (Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via AP)

    Residents are seeking shelter at a senior center after a series of fires and explosions Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Andover, Mass. The company that owns Columbia Gas says its crews are performing safety checks after fires and explosions erupted in three communities north of Boston. (Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via AP)

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. -- Gas-line explosions tore through several Massachusetts 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 across the communities -- officials were still unsure exactly what caused the blasts.

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 assist. Among them were Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon, who told Western Massachusetts News the fires were so widespread that "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," said Dan Rivera, mayor of Lawrence, at a news conference Thursday. "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, 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 chairman 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 company announced earlier Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions happened. Later Thursday, electric company National Grid announced plans to cut off all electricity in affected areas. Local public schools will also be closed Friday.

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 Thursday's 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."

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