World

Boston-area neighbourhoods look ‘like Armageddon’ after gas explosions kill teen, destroy dozens of homes

LAWRENCE, Mass. — A series of gas explosions an official
described as “Armageddon” 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 neighbourhoods to
evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off
the gas.

Authorities said Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died Thursday
after a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his
car. He was rushed to a Boston hospital but pronounced dead
there in the evening.

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.

In
this image take from video, flames consume the roof of a home in
Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13,
2018.
WCVB via AP

“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.”

Early Friday, the utility issued a statement saying its crews
need to visit each of the 8,600 affected customers to shut off
each gas meter and conduct a safety inspection.

In
this image take from video, firefighters battle a large structure
fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13,
2018.
WCVB via AP

“Additional support is being provided by crews from several
affiliated Columbia Gas companies and other utilities,” the
statement said. “We expect this will be an extended restoration
effort, and we will work tirelessly to restore service to the
affected customers.”

Baker previously said authorities hadn’t heard directly from
Columbia Gas, but later called the company’s response
“adequate.”

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 cancelled for Friday, and
some schools were being used as shelters for residents.

Lawrence resident Bruce Razin was among the evacuees standing
outside the Colonial Heights neighbourhood near the city’s high
school trying to decide what to do next late Thursday.

Officials had cut power in the area and the streets were pitch
black, save for emergency vehicle lights. Razin said he arrived
just as residents were being evacuated, and immediately saw the
house two doors down was levelled from an explosion.

Crews
work to knock down a fire in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13,
2018.
Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via AP

“I couldn’t imagine if that was my house,” said Razin, who
purchased his home nearly two years ago. “It’s total
destruction. I’d be completely devastated.”

With a backpack filled with personal items he had hastily
grabbed, he said he’d head to his mother’s home a few towns
over for the night.

In Lawrence, a man whose neighbourhood was among dozens that
erupted in fire says he ran into his basement to find that the
room was glowing. Resident Ra Nam says he was in his yard when
the smoke detector in his basement went off around 4:30 p.m.
EDT Thursday.

When he ran downstairs and saw the boiler on fire, he quickly
grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out. Minutes later, Nam
said he heard a loud boom from his neighbour’s house and the
ground shook. Nam said a woman and two kids had made it out of
the house but the basement was on fire.

Lawrence General Hospital said it was treating 10 victims,
including at least one in critical condition.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires
on gas lines that had become over-pressurized but said
investigators were still examining what happened.

In
this image take from video, flames burn through a home in
Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, Thursday, Sept. 13,
2018.
WCVB via AP

Columbia had announced earlier Thursday that it would be
upgrading gas lines in neighbourhoods 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.

Reached by phone, some local officials described scenes of
panic as residents rushed to evacuate, many wondering if their
homes would be next to erupt in flames. In North Andover, town
selectman Phil Decologero said his entire neighbourhood had
gathered in the street, afraid to enter their homes. Just a few
streets down, he said, homes were burning.

“It’s definitely a scary situation at the moment,” he said.
“It’s pretty severe.”

Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to
be torn apart by blasts. At one, the upper portion of a brick
chimney crushed an SUV parked in the driveway.

Soon after the first fires, Lawrence City Councilor Marc
Laplante was warning residents in the Colonial Heights
neighbourhood to evacuate but said traffic had become a
problem.

“People need to get out of this area safely,” he said at the
time. “It’s really difficult because the traffic right now is
horrendous.”

People
cover their faces to protect themselves from heavy smoke from a
fire on Bowdoin Street in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13,
2018.
Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via AP

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.”

The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about
26 miles (40 kilometres) 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.

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

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

— In 2014, a gas explosion in New York City’s East Harlem
neighbourhood 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 Con
Ed 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.”

— In September 2010, a Pacific Gas and Electric gas pipeline
exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and
destroying 38 homes.

Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin Richer and Collin
Binkley contributed from Boston.

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