Mas­sachusetts, feds hunt for gas blast cause

One man killed, at least 25 in­jured, thou­sands dis­placed

The Hamilton Spectator - - Canada & World - BOB SALSBERG

LAWRENCE, MASS.— 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 li­cence and was sit­ting in his car.

The blast in­jured at least 25 oth­ers and left dozens of homes in smoul­der­ing 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, 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 neigh­bour­hoods 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 neigh­bour­hoods 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 li­cence, 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 can­celled Fri­day as fam­i­lies waited to re­turn to their homes.

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, Mass., was caused when a Columbia em­ployee ac­ci­den­tally punc­tured a gas line while prob­ing for a leak.

The blast lev­elled 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.

Fluegge, 58, called the sit­u­a­tion “con­fus­ing more than fright­en­ing.”

“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 40 km north of Bos­ton, near the New Hamp­shire bor­der.

MARY SCH­WALM THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A dam­aged house in Lawrence, Mass., is seen Fri­day. The house was one of many that went up in flames.

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