Blasts cause chaos across com­mu­ni­ties

Of­fi­cials search for an­swers after gas-line ex­plo­sions kill one, cause injuries

Weekend Herald - - World - Karen Wein­traub

Of­fi­cials were still un­sure last night ex­actly what caused gas-line ex­plo­sions that tore through sev­eral Mas­sachusetts com­mu­ni­ties yes­ter­day, set­ting homes on fire, forc­ing evac­u­a­tions in three towns and leav­ing at least 10 peo­ple hos­pi­talised. The fiery chaos turned into a night of eerie dark­ness with power shut off across the com­mu­ni­ties.

Au­thor­i­ties re­ported one fa­tal­ity, 18-year-old Leonel Ron­don, who died after an ex­plo­sion sent a chim­ney crash­ing into his car, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press.

State po­lice re­ceived be­tween 60 and 100 re­ports of struc­ture fires and gas ex­plo­sions in Lawrence, North An­dover and An­dover, spurring neigh­bour­ing fire and po­lice de­part­ments to send of­fi­cers to as­sist. Among them were Methuen Po­lice Chief Joseph Solomon, who told Western Mas­sachusetts News that the fires were so wide­spread that “you can’t even see the sky”. North An­dover res­i­dents Amanda Mor­era and Nick Kennedy said they watched a neigh­bour stum­ble out of his house after a small ex­plo­sion. The man was not in­jured, they said, but looked stunned.

“He was wicked shocked,” Mor­era said. “Who wouldn’t be?” The cou­ple were still de­cid­ing whether to leave after the emer­gency work­ers told them they were bet­ter off else­where.

At least 8000 cus­tomers of Columbia Gas in the Mer­ri­mack re­gion were or­dered to leave their homes im­me­di­ately and the Na­tional Grid elec­tric com­pany quickly an­nounced plans to cut off all re­lated power to pre­vent ad­di­tional sparks.

“If you have not evac­u­ated, you have to go. Don’t wait for there to be a fire. Trust us when we tell you, if you stay in your homes, you are at risk,” said Dan Rivera, mayor of Lawrence, at a news con­fer­ence yes­ter­day. “Get out of your house and go north of the river.”

Con­cerned with pub­lic safety, lo­cal au­thor­i­ties were un­able to of­fer in­for­ma­tion about when res­i­dents would be cleared to re­turn home.

An­dover res­i­dent Mac Daniel said he was cook­ing tacos for din­ner when he got the first warn­ing to turn off his gas. A sec­ond mes­sage a few min­utes later told him to evac­u­ate the home he shares with his 16-year-old son.

“Ev­ery­body was sud­denly milling about out­side of their homes, try­ing to fig­ure out what to do and where to go,” said Daniel, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant.

As he and his son left, he said, he saw emer­gency ve­hi­cles from at least a half-dozen towns, in­clud­ing from over the state line in New Hamp­shire. Walk­ing on Main Street in An­dover, he said, he could see plumes of black smoke from nearby Lawrence. “That’s a city that’s seen re­ally, re­ally hard times, and to have some­thing like this happen is hor­ri­ble,” he said.

He and his son went to stay with his ex-wife on the other side of town. Elec­tric­ity had been cut off to her house, too, but be­cause she doesn’t have gas ser­vice, she did not have to evac­u­ate.

“We’re in the dark, can­dles burn­ing,” he said. “Peo­ple are just kind of hol­ing up where they can. The big ques­tion we’re all ask­ing is how did this happen? How can 100 homes sud­denly ex­plode? We’ll find the an­swers, but it’s very, very strange.”

Bil­lows of black smoke are what first alerted Phil DeCologero, a North An­dover res­i­dent and chair­man of its board of se­lect­men, to the emer­gency. The town, he told the Wash­ing­ton Post, was swarmed with fire en­gines, buzzing he­li­copters and wail­ing sirens.

“More than a dozen houses in North An­dover went up in flames,” said DeCologero, in­clud­ing one lo­cated across from a mul­ti­fam­ily house at­tached to a day­care cen­tre.

“We’re a 30,000-per­son town, 27 square miles. Given the num­ber of fires, no mu­nic­i­pal­ity twice our size would be able to ab­sorb that kind of catas­tro­phe all at once.”

Mas­sachusetts State Po­lice dis­patched troop­ers ear­lier to se­cure the af­fected ar­eas and help traf­fic snarled by pan­icked res­i­dents flee­ing their neigh­bour­hoods dur­ing the evening rush hour. The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board also sent out an in­ves­tiga­tive team.

Lawrence Gen­eral Hospi­tal is treat­ing 10 pa­tients in­jured in con­nec­tion with the ex­plo­sions, said Jill Mc­Don­ald Halsey, chief of mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “We are in emer­gency man­age­ment ac­ti­va­tion mode and are ready for any more that come.”

Columbia Gas com­pany had an­nounced that it would be up­grad­ing gas lines in neigh­bour­hoods across the state, in­clud­ing the area where the ex­plo­sions hap­pened. Later, elec­tric com­pany Na­tional Grid an­nounced plans to cut off all elec­tric­ity in af­fected ar­eas. Lo­cal pub­lic schools would be closed to­day.

Nat­u­ral gas pipe­lines can ex­plode for a num­ber of rea­sons, said Glen Ste­vick, who holds a doc­tor­ate in mechanical engi­neer­ing and is a con­sul­tant at Berke­ley Engi­neer­ing and Re­search. Pipe­lines can be dam­aged dur­ing con­struc­tion or they can be old, ill-main­tained and have struc­tural flaws.

A pipe that’s in good shape should be able to han­dle twice the strength it nor­mally op­er­ates at, he said. Still, Mas­sachusetts State Po­lice an­nounced that gas lines were be­ing de­pres­surised by Columbia Gas after yes­ter­day’s ex­plo­sions.

“Most pipes are ex­pected to take more than three times the pres­sure that they op­er­ate at, but over time there can be da­m­age that weak­ens the pipes,” Ste­vick said. “It’s pos­si­ble there’s some rea­son to in­crease pres­sure. Usu­ally that means there are ar­eas they sus­pect the pipe might be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing cor­ro­sion or it’s very old. If you keep a good data­base of your pipes and pe­ri­od­i­cally hy­dro test it’s the safest way to trans­port any fuel but it does take some dili­gence.”

Pho­tos / AP

Firefighters try to bring a fire un­der con­trol in Lawrence, a sub­urb of Bos­ton.

Res­i­dents were told they would be at risk if they stayed in their homes.

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