Investigators probing cause of deadly gas explosion near Boston
State agency blamed over-pressurized gas lines but authorities still investigating
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 smouldering 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 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 neighbourhoods 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 neighbourhoods 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.
Retired sportswriter Michael Grenier lives a few blocks from the home where the Rondon was killed.
He returned home to pick up some supplies, unsure when he'll be able to go back for good. He described the experience of returning back to the area as "traumatic."
"Something went dramatically wrong somewhere, and we hope they'll get to the bottom of that, because this community deserves better than that, any community in America deserves better than what we went through yesterday."
He worries Columbia Gas, which services the homes in the affected communities, will try and cover up what really happened. Like so many residents in the area, he wants answers and accountability.
"We truly, as a community, deserve answers. Not just this neighbourhood, but people in three cities and towns deserve some real hardcore correct answers so this doesn't happen again."
'Everyone wants answers'
Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia 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 cancelled 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-to-house 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 congressman 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 neighbourhoods 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.
Act of heroism
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 neighbours to clear out, he went back on patrol.
"He actually stayed on duty even though his house was burning down" neighbour Christel Nazario told The Associated Press. "I don't know how he did it."
The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 40 kilometres 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.
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 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 odour 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."
With files from CBC's Steven D'Souza