Thousands Fled Homes After Apparent Gas Explosions, Fires In Massachusetts

Sep 14, 2018

Updated at 9:42 a.m. ET on Friday

Federal authorities have opened an investigation into a series of explosions that set off fires in several small towns in Massachusetts on Thursday night, killing one person and injuring several others.

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Friday that it is sending a team to investigate "what certainly appears to be multiple explosions involving a natural gas pipeline."

An estimated 8,000 people have been displaced, according to local officials. Fred Thys of member station WBUR reports that residents may not be able to return home until Saturday.

Massachusetts State Police have confirmed that officials responded to 70 house fires, explosions or reports of gas odors — possibly caused by gas leaks — around the towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover on Thursday evening.

Officials urged all residents in the area who are Columbia Gas customers to evacuate, "as should anyone else who smells gas."

"Columbia Gas has not said what went wrong," Thys reported Friday. "State emergency management officials say 'possible gas line over-pressurization' could be the cause of [the] explosions."

An 18-year-old man died when a chimney that had been toppled by an explosion fell on his car in the city of Lawrence, according to the North Andover newspaper, The Eagle-Tribune. The newspaper said 10 people were injured in the gas explosions; however, Lawrence General Hospital reported earlier that 13 people were receiving treatment there.

Officials at the hospital said in a tweet that injuries included smoke inhalation and blast trauma and that one person in critical condition was transported to a Boston trauma center.

At least three people have been injured in Andover, including at least one firefighter, town officials said in a statement. It is unclear whether the people wounded in Andover are part of the group receiving care at Lawrence General Hospital.

On Thursday night, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera told residents they wouldn't be able to go home that evening;

Public schools in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover will be closed on Friday because of the fires.

Andover Town Manager Andrew P. Flanagan, Police Chief Patrick E. Keefe and Fire Chief Michael Mansfield said Andover fire responders had put out a total of 35 fires. "At peak, 18 fires were burning at the same time," they said, adding that all fires have been extinguished and fire crews will remain in the town throughout the evening.

Columbia Gas has been shutting off all service to customers in all three towns, MPS officials said in a tweet. Electric power was also turned off.

The Associated Press reported:

"Columbia Gas company 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 immediately comment."

Before evacuating from North Andover, Jeremy Melvin described a chaotic scene near the plumbing shop where he works.

"We have people running to their cars. Multiple fires. There's smoke lining from one end of my vision to the other," Melvin told WBUR's Lynn Jolicoeur.

State Police troopers and local police helped evacuate residents. Off-ramps into the towns were closed while on-ramps remained open to allow residents to get out of the affected areas.

At one point, Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon told USA Today there were so many fires, "you can't even see the sky."

Reuters spoke to an evacuee named Guilia Holland:

"Holland, a 35-year-old mechanic in a wheelchair, said she had just gotten off a bus returning home when she saw 'a big flash of light' at the house where she had been renting a room for a month.

" 'Good thing I wasn't home or I wouldn't be talking about it,' she said outside an elementary school in Lawrence that the Red Cross had converted into a shelter for about 170 people."

NPR's Tovia Smith spoke to resident Elaine Almquist, who said she felt powerless.

"I could see smoke, helicopters, fire trucks, police cars, just constant sirens — my city's literally burning to the ground," Almquist told Smith.

"[Almquist] was able to get into her house and grab her cat before fleeing to her folks' place, but with so many people evacuating at once she says the 15-minute trip took her two hours," Smith reports. "And now she's bracing for what may be days before she can go home."

Teams — each with a police officer, a firefighter and a gas technician — are going door-to-door in the affected area, Smith says, checking on thousands of houses. Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.