LAWRENCE, Mass. — Investigators worked Friday to pinpoint the cause of a series of fiery natural gas explosions that killed a teen driver in his car just hours after he got his license, injured at least 25 others and left dozens of homes in smoldering ruins.
Authorities said an estimated 8,000 people were displaced at the height of Thursday’s post-explosion chaos in three towns north of Boston that were rocked by the disaster. Most were still waiting, shaken and exhausted, to be allowed to return to their homes.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to help investigate the disaster in a state where some of the aging gas pipeline system dates to the 1860s.
The rapid-fire series of gas explosions ignited fires in 60 to 80 homes in the working-class towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas and electricity. The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 26 miles north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border.
Authorities said all of the fires had been extinguished overnight and the situation was stabilizing. However, Gas and electricity remained shut off Friday in most of the area, and entire neighborhoods were deserted.
Hours earlier, Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield described a starkly different situation.
“It looked like Armageddon, it really did,” 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.”
Authorities said 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, of Lawrence, died after a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car. He was reportedly in the vehicle when the chimney fell in the driveway of a friend’s house. Three other young men in the vehicle got out and tried to move the chimney but couldn’t. He was rushed to a Boston hospital and pronounced dead there Thursday evening.
The state Registry of Motor Vehicles said Rondon had just been issued his driver’s license earlier Thursday.
Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in the three communities to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening. Some 400 people spent the night in shelters, and school was canceled Friday as families waited to return to their homes.
Gov. Charlie Baker said state and local authorities were investigating but it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers, acknowledging the “massive inconvenience” for those displaced by the explosions. He said hundreds of gas technicians were going house-to-house to ensure each was safe.
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 Gas 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 seeking comment.
Capturing the mounting sense of frustration, Democratic U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton tweeted that he had called the utility’s president several times with no response. “Everyone wants answers. And we deserve them,” Moulton said.
Got the number of the Columbia Gas president and have tried him multiple times with no answer. Everyone wants answers. And we deserve them.
— Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) September 14, 2018
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera on Friday said that Columbia’s communications with local authorities have been poor and that the company is “hiding from the problem.”
Columbia Gas was sued in 2014 after a strip club was destroyed in a natural gas explosion two years earlier.
The November 2012 explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts, was caused when a Columbia employee accidentally punctured a gas line while probing for a leak. The blast leveled the Scores Gentleman’s Club, injuring about 20 people and damaging dozens of other buildings. The club owner and the gas company eventually settled the case.