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 rocked by the disaster. Most were still waiting, shaken and exhausted, to be allowed to return to their homes.
Gov. Charlie Baker said Friday that hundreds of gas technicians were being deployed throughout the night and into Saturday to make sure each home is safe to enter.
“This remains a tremendous inconvenience for many people,” Baker said. “It’s essential for the crews to get this right.”
Baker authorized the utility Eversource to take management control over the effort to restore services.
Even after residents return and their electricity is restored, gas service won’t be turned on until technicians can inspect every connection in each home, a process that could take weeks.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to help investigate the blasts 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 down 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 Thursday evening.
The state Registry of Motor Vehicles said Rondon had been issued his driver’s license only hours earlier Thursday.
Massachusetts State Police Thursday night 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.
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 President Steve Bryant wouldn’t comment on the suspected cause of the blasts, deflecting questions about his company’s response but saying it had “substantive, lengthy conversations” with the authorities.
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 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.
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey said they are calling on the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to hold a hearing to determine what went wrong and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Police officer’?s heroism
At least one story of heroism emerged from the ashes: that of Lawrence police officer Ivan Soto. His house burned nearly to the ground, but after rushing home to check on his family and warn his neighbors to evacuate, he went back on patrol.
“He actually stayed on duty even though his house was burning down” neighbor Christel Nazario told The Associated Press. “I don’t know how he did it.”
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, 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.
Columbia Gas was fined $100,000 by the state for a variety of safety violations since 2010, including $35,000 in 2016 for failing to follow company and pipeline safety regulations when responding to an outage and repairing a leak in Taunton.
The company was sued in 2014 after a strip club was destroyed in a natural gas explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts, after a Columbia employee accidentally punctured a gas line while probing for a leak. The November 2012 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.