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'It looked like Armageddon': Gas explosions trigger deadly chaos in Massachusetts

A home damaged by an explosion stands on Jefferson Street in Lawrence, Mass., on Sept. 14, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Scott Eisen

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. - Deadly gas-line explosions tore through several communities north of Boston on Thursday, setting dozens of homes on fire, forcing evacuations across three towns, seriously injuring 10 people and leaving one man dead after a piece of chimney fell on his car.

Hours later - after a traumatic 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, or when it would be safe for the evacuated residents of Lawrence, North Andover and Andover to return home.

But investigators had begun to zero in on the potential cause of the explosions: over-pressurization of a gas main owned by Columbia Gas, which had been upgrading equipment in the area, according to Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal's office.

Before the explosions on Thursday, Columbia Gas notified customers that it would be "upgrading natural gas lines in neighborhoods across the state," and said that the move would bring increased reliability and "enhanced safety features."

A short time later, state police received between 60 and 100 reports of structure fires and gas explosions in the three communities, and fire crews battled dozens of simultaneous blazes.

"It looked like Armageddon," Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield told reporters." There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see plumes of smoke in front of me. ... It just looked like an absolute war zone."

Authorities reported one fatality, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who died after an explosion sent a chimney crashing into his car.

"He was too young, too young to die," his uncle, Carlos Rondon, told The Washington Post on Friday. "He was just starting his life."

Nearby, North Andover residents Amanda Morera and Nick Kennedy said they watched another neighbor stagger 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?"

At least 8,600 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 urged. "Get out of your house and go north of the river."

The sudden explosions and dire warnings set the entire region on edge. Even people in undamaged homes with working utilities piled suitcases, bikes and pets into vehicles, on their way to stay anywhere else with family and friends. The smell of smoke was pervasive for miles.

Local authorities were unable to offer information about when residents would be cleared to return home. Andover Police tweeted that power would be out until at least 9 a.m. Saturday.

In an update Friday, Columbia Gas said it was "working with the appropriate authorities to investigate this incident in order to understand its cause." Crews, the company said, would need to visit each of the 8,600 affected customers, shut off their gas and then conduct a safety inspection. Just before noon, authorities said crews had gone door-to-door and turned off gas to approximately 3,500 customers overnight, but thousands remained.

Still, the gas company warned residents in affected areas Friday: "Please do not enter your house unless you are accompanied by a gas company representative."

They also cautioned residents to refrain from turning on gas meters without authorization. An impatient person with a wrench could inadvertently spark another explosion.

The National Transportation Safety Board has launched an investigation into the explosions, chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a Friday morning news conference. The agency, whose purview includes incidents involving pipelines, is "looking at the design of the pipeline system, any maintenance or upgrades that are in the process of being done," Sumwalt said.

At shelters in safe areas, displaced residents swapped stories of close calls.

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.

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.

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," he said.

Billowing black smoke was 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."

Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon, one of numerous first responders from neighboring departments who raced into the affected areas to help, told Western Massachusetts News that the fires were so widespread "you can't even see the sky."

Natural gas moves across the country at high pressure through miles of metal pipes, according to the American Gas Association. The pressure generally decreases the closer distribution pipes get to homes and businesses, controlled by devices called regulators that allow operators to change the pressure or stop gas from moving entirely for maintenance or repairs. Individual homes and business also have regulators that can further reduce pressure.

Those pipelines can explode for a number of reasons, said Glen Stevick, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering 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.

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This article was written by Karen Weintraub, Deanna Paul, Taylor Telford and Cleve R. Wootson Jr., reporters for The Washington Post.

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