LAWRENCE, Mass. -- A series of gas explosions one official described as "Armageddon" left at least 10 people injured and ignited fires in at least 39 homes in three communities north of Boston on Thursday, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and turn off gas and electric lines to prevent further damage.
Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening.
"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 are investigating but that it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers.
"This is still very much an active scene," he said. "There will be plenty of time later tonight, tomorrow morning and into the next day to do some of the work around determining exactly what happened and why."
Hours after the explosions, the utility's parent company issued a brief statement saying its crews were still performing safety checks in the area.
"Our thoughts are with everyone affected by today's incident," Indiana-based NiSource said in a statement. "The first priority for our crews at the scene is to ensure the safety of our customers and the community."
By late Thursday, all of the fires had been doused but many areas remained silent and dark after residents fled and after power companies cut electricity to prevent further fires. Schools in all three communities were canceled for Friday, and some schools were being used as shelters for residents.
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 General Hospital said it was treating 10 victims, including at least one in critical condition.
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.
"Lawrence is a very resilient community. We're going to get through this together," Mayor Dan Rivera told reporters as emergency lights illuminated smoke in the night sky nearby.