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The Journal Gazette

  • Fire inspectors talk to the residents of a home that was blown off its foundation on Kingston Street in Lawrence, Mass., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Multiple houses were damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • A worker with Columbia Gas pries the manhole cover open as they work to make sure there are no gas leaks at the corner of Parker and Salem Streets in Lawrence, Mass., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Multiple houses were damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • Volunteers help to unload a truck of donations outside the Parthum School in Lawrence, Mass., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Multiple houses were damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • A Columbia Gas truck passes through a roadblock as a member of the State Police talks to a pedestrian on Route 114 in North Andover, Mass., at the Lawrence city line, Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Many roads remain closed after Thursday afternoon gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • People cover their faces to protect themselves from heavy smoke from a fire on Bowdoin Street in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The company that owns Columbia Gas says its crews are performing safety checks after a series of fires and explosions erupted in three communities north of Boston. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via AP)

  • Fire inspectors take notes outside a house that was blown off its foundation on Kingston Street in Lawrence, Mass., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Multiple houses were damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames consume the roof of a home in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. A series of gas explosions killed a teenager, injured at least 10 other people and ignited fires in at least 39 homes in three communities north of Boston, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas. (WCVB via AP)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, firefighters battle a large structure fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames consume a home in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • Lawrence residents stop to take photos of a house on Bowdoin Street in Lawrence Mass., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. The home was one of multiple houses that went up in flames on Thursday afternoon after gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • A member of the State Police moves a cone for an emergency vehicle at a road block on Route 114 in North Andover, Mass., at the Lawrence city line, Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Many roads remain closed after Thursday afternoon gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • Police officers man a checkpoint as multiple fire trucks from surrounding communities are staged along a road Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass. A problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston triggered a series of gas explosions and fires. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • A house on Herrick Road in North Andover, Mass., is seen Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. The home was one of multiple houses that went up in flames on Thursday afternoon after gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • Firefighters battle a house fire, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, on Herrick Road in North Andover, Mass., one of multiple emergency crews responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • Firefighters battle a house fire, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, on Herrick Road in North Andover, Mass., one of multiple emergency crews responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • A resident talks on her cell phone as she pushes a grocery cart full of belongings across the Merrimack River on South Broadway in Lawrence, Mass., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Multiple houses were damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • A Billerica, Mass. police officer gathers with employees of Columbia Gas and a member of the Andover Fire Department after shutting off the gas in a home Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, in Andover, Mass. Multiple houses were damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

  • Red Cross employee Larry French briefs the media outside the Parthum School in Lawrence, Mass., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Multiple houses were damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • A damaged house is cordoned off, Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, on Kingston Street in Lawrence, Mass., one of multiple homes damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • Michael Smolak, of Smolak Farms in North Andover, delivers a bag of baked goods to the emergency shelter set up at North Andover High School of Friday, Sept 14, 2018. Many residents were forced to evacuate their homes Thursday afternoon after gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • ADDS IDENITY OF VICTIM LEONEL RONDON- A collapsed home and car sit damaged on Chickering Street in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, after a series of gas explosions in several communities north of Boston. Authorities said Leonel Rondon died after the chimney toppled by the exploding house crashed into his car in the driveway. He was rushed to a Boston hospital but pronounced dead there in the evening. (Carl Russo/The Eagle-Tribune via AP)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames rise from a house in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews are responding to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • A member of the Red Cross unloads a truck of donations to waiting volunteers outside the Parthum School in Lawrence, Mass., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Multiple houses were damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • A worker with Columbia gas stands over an open man hole as the crew works to make sure there are no gas leaks at the corner of Parker and Salem Streets in Lawrence, Mass., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Multiple houses were damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • A damaged house on Jefferson Street, in Lawrence, Mass., is seen Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. The home was one of multiple houses that went up in flames on Thursday afternoon after gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • A damaged house on Bowdoin Street in Lawrence Mass., is seen Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. The home was one of multiple houses that went up in flames on Thursday afternoon after gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • In this image take from video provided by WCVB in Boston, firefighters battle a raging house fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Emergency crews responded to what they believe is a series of gas explosions that have damaged homes across three communities north of Boston. (WCVB via AP)

  • Fire inspectors take notes outside a house that was blown off its foundation on Kingston Street in Lawrence, Mass., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Multiple houses were damaged Thursday afternoon from gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • Crews work to knock down a fire in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The company that owns Columbia Gas says its crews are performing safety checks after a series of fires and explosions erupted in three communities north of Boston. Authorities are blaming over-pressurized gas lines and previously told all residents with Columbia Gas service in those areas to evacuate. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via AP)

Friday, September 14, 2018 3:20 pm

Everyone wants answers: Mass., feds hunt for gas blast cause

BOB SALSBERG | Associated Press

 

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 that one official described as "Armageddon" 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.

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.

About 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 overpressurized but said investigators were still examining what happened.

Capturing the mounting sense of frustration, Democratic U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton tweeted he had called the utility's president several times with no response.

"Everyone wants answers. And we deserve them," Moulton said.

The Massachusetts' gas pipeline system is among the oldest in the country, as much as 157 years old in some places, according to the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group.

Columbia Gas had announced earlier Thursday 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.

The company 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 cot.

Fuegge, 58, said his apartment wasn't damaged, calling the situation "confusing more than frightening."

The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 26 miles 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 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."

Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to be torn apart by blasts.

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."

Gas explosions have claimed lives and destroyed property around the U.S. in recent years.

In 2016, a buildup of natural gas triggered an explosion and fire that killed seven people in apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland.

In 2014, a gas explosion in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood killed eight people and injured about 50. Consolidated Edison later agreed to pay $153 million to settle charges after the state's Public Service Commission found it had violated state safety regulations. A gas leak had been reported before that blast.

A 2011 natural gas explosion killed five people in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and that state's largest gas utility was fined by regulators, who called the company's safety record "downright alarming."

Philip Marcelo of the Associated Press in Lawrence, Alanna Durkin Richer and Collin Binkley in Boston, Mary Schwalm in North Andover and Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.