Three northern Massachusetts residential communities were rocked last night by dozens of gas-fueled explosions and fires that erupted within minutes of each other, straining fire crews and forcing evacuations.
One man was killed and about 25 injured, including at least two firefighters, and dozens of homes were destroyed or damaged in the series of explosions that started at about 4:30 pm.
There were more than 60 fires, many erupting simultaneously across the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. At one point in the early evening, the Massachusetts State Police said there were 70 calls of fires, explosions or gas odors to answer.
Andover’s fire chief said last night there had been 38 fires and 17 gas leaks in his community alone.
Thousands of customers of Columbia Gas were evacuated and told to stay away from their homes until all gas lines could be shut off, all lines could be cleared, and the homes could be declared safe. Employees of the company started inspecting more than 8,000 houses – a process that was continuing this morning.
As a safety precaution, the electric utility serving the towns – National Grid – shut off power to all homes in the area as the skies darkened. Police closed off all roads leading into the area, while encouraging residents to leave on roads leading out of the towns.
Early reports pointed to over-pressurized natural gas lines as a possible cause but the matter is still being investigated.
Columbia Gas has been working on a major project replacing gas lines in the three communities, although it is not known if that had any effect on the situation.
According to the company’s website, a third party supplier last month struck a gas line, knocking out service for about 250 customers in Lawrence.
Columbia Gas is part of NiSource, which, according to its website, serves 3.5 million natural gas and 500,000 electric customers nationwide.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which oversees pipeline safety, said it is dispatching a team to investigate.
The NTSB investigated Columbia Gas over a gas-explosion in West Virginia several years ago in which three houses were destroyed and several others damaged. The agency found Columbia Gas responsible due to corrosive pipes from ineffective maintenance and a failure to install remote control valves.
First responders from neighboring towns are assisting in putting out fires, policing neighborhoods and roads, and assisting residents.
Gov. Charlie Baker said that restoring safety and getting people back into their homes were the main priorities but that the state would work with federal authorities to investigate and “hold the responsible parties accountable.”
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