LAWRENCE, Mass. (AP) - Investigators worked Friday to
pinpoint the cause of a series of dramatic natural gas explosions that
killed a teenager who had just gotten his driver's license and was sitting
in his car, injured at least 25 others and left dozens of homes in
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, saying pipelines are within its jurisdiction.
The rapid-fire series of gas explosions that one official
described as "Armageddon" ignited fires in 60 to 80 homes in Lawrence,
Andover and North Andover, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews
scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas and electricity.
Gas and electricity remained shut off Friday in most of the
area, and entire neighborhoods were eerily deserted.
Authorities said Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died after a
chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car. He was rushed to
a Boston hospital and pronounced dead there Thursday evening.
Rondon, a musician who went by the name DJ Blaze, had just
gotten his driver's license, grieving friends and relatives told The Boston
Globe. "It's crazy how this happened," said a friend, Cassandra Carrion.
The state Registry of Motor Vehicles said Rondon had 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
Gov. Charlie Baker said state and local authorities were
investigating but that 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.
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.
John Fluegge said he came home Thursday to find a note on the
door of his apartment building saying everyone had to leave. A police
officer directed him to North Andover's high school, where he slept on a
Fuegge, 58, called the situation "confusing more than
"You don't know if your house is going to go up or your
apartment," he said. "It happened all of a sudden, no one knew how it
started and everything." His apartment was not damaged but he has still not
been allowed to return because there is no power.
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 Mayor Dan Rivera reassured immigrants who might not
be living in his city legally that they had nothing to fear.
"Do not be afraid. Stay in the light. We will support you and
your family," Rivera said at a news conference Friday, speaking in English
and Spanish. "Lawrence is one community."
Authorities said all of the fires had been extinguished
overnight and the situation was stabilizing.
Hours earlier, Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield described
a starkly different situation.
"It looked like Armageddon, it really did," he 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."
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 seeking comment.
Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to
be torn apart by blasts.
Joseph Solomon, the police chief in nearby Methuen, said 20
to 25 homes were on fire in Lawrence when he responded to help. He said
there are so many fires "you can't even see the sky."
In one neighborhood of the affected area, police,
firefighters and utility crews were going door-to-door, checking to make
sure it was safe for residents to return home. The fire crews were from as
far away as Foxborough and Oxford in central Massachusetts.
Brenda Charest stood anxiously on her front porch while a
crew checked her undamaged home before giving her the all-clear to return
Friday. On Thursday, she had come home to a hissing sound in her basement
and a strong odor of natural gas.
"We took off. I said, 'Pack up, we're out of here,'" said
Charest, who went with her 93-year old father and cat to a relative's home.
"It was scary. We didn't know anything."
NISOURCE STOCK: The gas blasts took place in a
neighborhood served by Columbia Gas, a unit of NiSource. The company put out a
statement late Thursday saying its crews were performing safety checks.The
company's stock lost 10.7 percent to $25.07.