'Armageddon' north of Boston as deadly gas explosions leave towns on fire

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Dozens of explosions and fires are affecting three towns north of Boston, Massachusetts

■ Evacuation orders are in place for homes in Lawrence, Andover, North Andover and along the Merrimack River

■ Explosions caused by problem with a gas line

■ One person has died — an 18-year-old man who was crushed by a chimney

A TEENAGE boy has died and at least 12 others were injured after dozens of gas explosions apparently triggered by over-pressurised gas lines ignited 39 house fires north of Boston.

 

The 18-year-old boy was killed and multiple others injured as dozens of explosions and fires rocked three towns in scenes described by an official as ‘Armageddon’.

Affected towns include Andover, North Andover, Lawrence and along the Merrimack River — where evacuation orders are now in place.

Homes serviced by Columbia Gas have been told to evacuate and turn off their gas supply. Power supply has also been shut off in the affected communities.

Lawrence teen, Leonel Robson, was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he died around 8.30pm local time from injuries.

One of the explosions set a house on fire which sent a chimney crashing into his car.

Officials say ten other people have been injured from the explosions.

Massachusetts State Police confirmed they were investigating 70 cases of fire, explosion or gas related incidents between South Lawrence, North Andover and along the Merrimack River.

“It looked like Armageddon, it really did,” Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield 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.”

Governor Charlie Baker said state and local authorities are investigating but that it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers. “This is still very much an active scene,” he said.

“There will be plenty of time later tonight, tomorrow morning and into the next day to do some of the work around determining exactly what happened and why.”

North Andover resident Garry Frizzell, 50, said he smelt gas in his house and thought it was the oven, before realising he hadn’t used it in three days.

“This is like Armageddon,” he also told the Boston Globe. “I was at the Boston Marathon bombings and this reminds me of that.”

Residents in affected areas were warned “DO NOT use candles” even if their power was cut.

Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon said there were so many fires “you can’t even see the sky”.

At least 39 homes in three communities caught fire.

Andover officials said all fires in the town had been extinguished. At the peak of the situation 18 fires were burning at the same time.

Lawrence Police Chief Roy Vasque told The Eagle-Tribune newspaper that he’d “never seen anything like this”.

Footage filmed from local TV helicopters showed orange flames and a large amount of smoke rising from several buildings.

WCVB reported one explosion caused a North Andover home to blow off its foundations. A witness said he saw people trying to crawl out of the debris after the explosion.

Lawrence resident Ra Nam said he was in his yard when the smoke detector in his basement went off around 4:30pm Thursday (local time).

Mr Nam said he ran downstairs and saw that his boiler was on fire. He says he quickly grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out.

Minutes later, he heard a loud boom come from his neighbour’s house and the ground shook. He said a woman and two kids had made it out of the house, but the basement was on fire.

Police urged residents in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover who have gas service from Colombia Gas to evacuate their homes “immediately”.

“Gas lines are currently being depressurised by the company, it will take some time,” a State Police tweet read.

They said it was “far too early to speculate” on the cause but there is no indication of foul play.

“A joint investigation will be conducted when the situation is stabilised.”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said state and local authorities are investigating but that it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers.

“This is still very much an active scene,” he said.

“There will be plenty of time later tonight, tomorrow morning and into the next day to do some of the work around determining exactly what happened and why.”

The three communities house more than 146,000 residents and are located about 42km north of Boston.

Town officials in Andover advised all residents and businesses to evacuate and to shut off their gas, if they know how to safely.

In nighbouring North Andover, town Selectman Phil Decologero said that his entire neighbourhood had gathered in the street, afraid to enter homes.

“It’s definitely a scary situation at the moment,” he said. “It’s pretty severe.”

Entire neighbourhoods were being evacuated in Lawrence. City Councillor Marc Laplante said authorities were shutting off electric power and urging residents in the Colonial Heights neighbourhood to head to Parthum elementary and middle schools.

Firefighters battle a large structure fire in Lawrence. Picture: WCVB

Firefighters battle a large structure fire in Lawrence. Picture: WCVBSource:AP

“People need to get out of this area safely, and it’s really difficult because the traffic right now is horrendous,” he said.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency staff were tasked to assist in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, along with state fire investigators.

Traffic gridlocked due to panicked residents rushing to evacuate.

State Police said all off-ramps exiting into the towns have been closed. On ramps have been left open to allow for evacuation.

Troopers are working to help the traffic flow and keep panicked residents calm.

Columbia Gas is the gas service provider in the area. Police have said the company has shut off 8000 customers as they work to contain the situation.

The company’s website said on Thursday they had planned to upgrade natural gas lines in neighbourhoods across Massachusetts. It’s not clear where the work was happening today.

WBZ News reported the first explosion was triggered by an overpressurised gas line.

Hours after the explosions, the utility’s parent company issued a brief statement saying its crews were still performing safety checks in the area.

“Our thoughts are with everyone affected by today’s incident,” Indiana-based NiSource said. “The first priority for our crews at the scene is to ensure the safety of our customers and the community.”

Columbia Gas was hit with criticism for taking five hours to tweet about the incident.

“Wow 5 hours later you address this as an “incident in Lawrence”. This is a little bit bigger than an incident!” Twitter user Candie wrote.

“Well this is quite frankly a disgrace. Almost 40 fires and 70 cases of gas odour. It took you more than 4 hours to respond and THIS garbage is all you have to say?” Twitter user Kasey added.

“Unacceptable response time … your customers deserve better,” Kerri Doherty added.

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