Everyone Wants Answers: Massachusetts Feds Hunt for Gas Blast Cause

September 14, 2018 Updated: September 14, 2018    

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 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 the disaster 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.

Flames consume the roof of a home in Lawrence
Flames consume the roof of a home in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, on Sept. 13, 2018. (WCVB via AP)

Gas and electricity remained shut off 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 there 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 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.

Flames rise from a house
Flames rise from a house in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, on Sept. 13, 2018. (WCVB via AP)

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-to-house to ensure each was safe.

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.

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.

Firefighters battle a raging house fire
Firefighters battle a raging house fire in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, on Sept. 13, 2018. (WCVB via AP)

The company was sued in 2014 after a strip club was destroyed in a natural gas explosion two years earlier.

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.

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.

Fuegge, 58, said his apartment wasn’t damaged, calling the situation “confusing more than frightening.”

The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 26 miles north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border. Lawrence, the largest of them, is a majority Latino city with a population of about 80,000.

Authorities said all of the fires had been extinguished overnight and the situation was stabilizing.

Hours earlier, Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield described a starkly different situation.

“It looked like Armageddon, it really did,” he told reporters. “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.”

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

Gas explosions have claimed lives and destroyed property around the U.S. in recent years.

In 2016, a buildup of natural gas triggered an explosion and fire that killed seven people in apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland.

In 2014, a gas explosion in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood killed eight people and injured about 50. Consolidated Edison later agreed to pay $153 million to settle charges after the state’s Public Service Commission found it had violated state safety regulations. A gas leak had been reported before that blast.

A 2011 natural gas explosion killed five people in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and that state’s largest gas utility was fined by regulators, who called the company’s safety record “downright alarming.”

By Bob Salsberg

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