Safety crews combed block-by-block across three Boston suburban communities Friday in search of gas leaks that erupted into explosions a day earlier, killing one person, injuring 25 others and setting more than 70 homes ablaze.
An estimated 8,000 residents were evacuated from Andover, North Andover and Lawrence for fear of additional gas blasts that saw billows of smoke and orange flames cloud the skies late Thursday afternoon. The series of explosions started around 4:30 p.m.
“It looked like Armageddon,” said Fire Chief Mike Mansfield of Andover. “It looked like an absolute war zone.”
The FBI’s Boston Office issued a statement that “there are no indications this incident is related to terrorism.”
Police said Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died when a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car in the driveway. He was inside the vehicle. Local hospitals said they were treating at least 25 injured persons.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said the local gas utility, Columbia Gas Company, reported the disaster resulted from too much pressure on old gas lines. The utility has been upgrading the lines in the communities, located 25 miles north of Boston.
The U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration dispatched a team to the scene to support local and state safety officials.
Gas and electricity were promptly shut off to prevent additional explosions, resulting in an eerily dark scene over a wide swath of the communities, the only light coming from police and emergency vehicles. State and local police stood guard to prevent looting.
Gov. Charlie Baker described the scene as “traumatic for residents,” many discovering streets to their neighborhoods were closed off upon returning home from work. Shelters were set up in schools, senior centers and other public buildings.
“Thankfully,” said Baker, “neighbors helped neighbors. Police, fire and our first responders jumped into action quickly …to make sure the communities are safe.”
Congressman Seth Moulton expressed frustration with the gas company, commenting on social media that he repeatedly tried to call the company president without success.
“Everyone wants answers,” said Moulton. “And we deserve them.”
Some displaced residents in unaffected areas of Andover were told Friday they could return to their homes, but were instructed to continue to leave their gas off until further notice.
Three-person safety crews of gas company technicians, firefighters and police officers checked house by house throughout the affected areas.
Ivan Soto, a rookie police officer from Lawrence, was working in the danger zone Thursday night when he learned his home was among those on fire. He was assured his wife and two teenage daughters were safe and he continued to help evacuate residents and patrol the area.
“We relieved him,” said Sgt. John Dushame. “But he didn’t want to leave.”
In Lawrence, a city of 80,000 mostly Hispanic residents, several homes and apartment buildings burned unattended as there weren’t enough firefighters to respond to each explosion and fire.
“We're very upset,” said a woman on Lawrence’s Chickering Road, her home a shambles.. “It's pretty frightening to see your house explode.”
Cameron Couillard, who works at the nearby Shawsheen Plaza, said everyone there “felt the shake” when the explosions went occurred.
Kristina Fabiano of Andover said she walked into her apartment building around 4 p.m. and smelled gas, called her husband to tell him, heard the fire alarm go off in the basement and called 911. The building soon went up in flames.
She said the fire was smoky at first and then bright orange flames could be seen inside through the front door and windows. Eleven people lived in the apartment complex.
“This is so terrible," she said, as she stood by with her husband, both crying.
Scores of first responders and fire equipment from nearby cities and towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire were on the scene to assist with putting down the fires and helping distressed residents.
Lawrence Police Chief Roy Vasque said he had “never seen anything like this.”