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

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - NEWS - By Bob Sals­berg

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.

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.

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 only hours 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 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-to­house to en­sure each was safe, and de­clared a state of emer­gency for the af­fected area so the state could take over re­cov­ery ef­forts.

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

Cap­tur­ing the mount­ing sense of frus­tra­tion, Democratic U.S. Rep. Seth Moul­ton tweeted that he had called the util­ity’s pres­i­dent sev­eral times with no re­sponse. “Ev­ery­one wants an­swers. And we de­serve them,” Moul­ton said.

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.

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. But Rivera crit­i­cized the gas util­ity for poor com­mu­ni­ca­tions and ac­cused the com­pany of “hid­ing from the prob­lem.”

On Thurs­day, An­dover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield de­scribed the un­fold­ing scene as “Armageddon.”

“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,” he told re­porters.

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

Columbia Gas was sued in

2014 af­ter a strip club was de­stroyed in a nat­u­ral gas ex­plo­sion. 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.

MARY SCHWALM - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Fire­fight­ers bat­tle a house fire, Thurs­day 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.

MARY SCHWALM - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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