State Police detected underground gas leak in Lawrence after explosions

Frederick Owens
September 15, 2018

Federal and state investigators converged in Massachusetts Friday after at least one man was killed and up to 25 people were injured late Thursday when a series of unexplained natural gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley served by Columbia Gas damaged dozens of buildings and caused mass evacuations.

Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, was killed after a house explosion sent a chimney falling onto his auto, according to the Essex District Attorney's Office.

At least 10 other people were injured as explosions and fires affected almost 40 homes and businesses in the state, CNN reported.

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. That occurred when a Columbia Gas technician called to investigate a gas odor at a nightclub accidentally punctured a line, the state Department of Public Utilities said in a report.

Doyle was at a shelter set up at North Andover High School on Friday, picking up food and other supplies to take to a fire station from which it could be distributed.

"When you call, it says that they're closed and there's no answering machine", Willis said.

It was the largest natural gas pipeline accident, in terms of the number of buildings involved, in the United States since 2010, when an interstate natural gas transmission line operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Company ruptured in San Bruno, California, destroying 38 buildings, damaging 70 more, and killing eight people, according to a Reuters analysis of incident reports from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

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

Local police reported "fires and explosions" at dozens of homes and other properties on Thursday evening.

"We are asking everybody with gas in their homes to leave their homes until further notice", North Andover town manager Andrew Maylor told one local television station.

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Chief Michael Mansfield requested through the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, two additional fire task forces to respond to Andover. That directed 20 fire engines and 10 fire ladder trucks to the Town of Andover plus the town's entire fire department.

The state police said gas lines are now being depressurized by the company but warned that may take some time.

Lawrence resident Ra Nam says he was in his yard when the smoke detector in his basement went off around 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

"Weather permitting, work will take place Monday through Friday", Columbia Gas said in a statement.

Gas utilities have come under heightened scrutiny in recent years for an aging network of pipelines that critics say are not being properly inspected and maintained, posing a growing risk to public safety. It was not immediately clear if any of those were from Andover.

AMANDA SABGA/Staff photoA firefighter rests after working on a house on Brookfield Street in South Lawrence during a massive natural gas disaster that affected local areas.

"It was very scary", she said.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera had asked impacted residents to evacuate.

"When you return to your home, if the gas is turned off, under no circumstances should you turn it back on", Schwartz said.

Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon told USA Today there are so many fires, "you can't even see the sky".

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