‘It looked like Armageddon’

Sep 14, 2018 by

Local crews assist after gas explosions rock Merrimack Valley

IN THIS IMAGE taken from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames consume a home in Lawrence. (WCVB via AP)

Published in the September 14, 2018 edition.

Wakefield Municipal Gas and Light Department crews headed to the Merrimack Valley this morning to help figure out how a gas distribution system could have failed so terribly yesterday afternoon, causing more than 40 explosions and fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover which resulted in one death.

WMGLD General Manager Pete Dion assured Wakefieldians yesterday on social media that the town is not connected to the affected line, which is operated by Columbia Gas Company. The message did urge local customers to, as always, call the MGLD whenever they smell natural gas.

Dion said two WMGLD crews went north today to help in the effort to first make sure homes and businesses in the affected areas are cleared of any gas, and then will help determine the safety of the system, assisting in the investigation of how much damage has been done throughout the underground gas system.

The fires and explosions were caused by an over-pressurized gas system. Dion explained that typically this happens when workers inadvertently connect a high pressure main to a low pressure one.

Yesterday morning, Columbia Gas sent out a notice to customers titled “Improving natural gas service across Massachusetts.” It states: “We’ll be upgrading natural gas lines in neighborhoods across the state. This work will lead to long-term benefits for you including enhanced safety features, reliability of service for years to come, less future maintenance work in your neighbohrood and system support for amenities like fire pits, outdoor grills and pool heaters.”

The notice continues that customers’ gas service will be off during installation. Once the work is done, Columbia Gas will “conduct a natural gas safety inspection outside and inside your home or business. After a successful inspection, we’ll relight your appliances.”

One question Dion had about the extent of the system failure yesterday was why regulator stations didn’t kick in to isolate the problem to a much smaller area.

In Wakefield, there are three stations where gas comes into the town, and if it is too pressurized these “take” stations stop it. There are also six regulator stations throughout Wakefield’s gas system that are designed to isolate any trouble.

Fire Chief Michael Sullivan and the crew on Engine 1 were part of a task force pulled together under the Statewide Fire Mobilization Plan that went to the area around 5:45 yesterday afternoon. Wakefield was part of Task Force 13, which also includes engines from Reading, Stoneham, Melrose, Malden, Lynn, Saugus and Lexington, as well as four ladder companies from Burlington, Chelsea, Lynn and Everett. Everyone in this group reported to the staging area at the Andover High parking lot on Shawsheen Avenue and the crews rotated out to help cover normal calls. The Wakefield engine, for example, handled a car fire in that town and dealt with wires pulled down by a tractor trailer truck.

Sullivan said most of the fires that were burning had already been covered by other responding groups.

The Wakefield crew was released around 9:15 last night.

Entire neighborhoods were ordered evacuated as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas at the height of the situation.

Authorities said Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died Thursday after a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car. He was rushed to a Boston hospital but pronounced dead there in the evening.

Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening.

“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.”

Gov. 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.”

Early Friday, the utility issued a statement saying its crews need to visit each of the 8,600 affected customers to shut off each gas meter and conduct a safety inspection.

“Additional support is being provided by crews from several affiliated Columbia Gas companies and other utilities,” the statement said. “We expect this will be an extended restoration effort, and we will work tirelessly to restore service to the affected customers.”

Baker previously said authorities hadn’t heard directly from Columbia Gas, but later called the company’s response “adequate.”

By late Thursday, all of the fires had been doused but many areas remained silent and dark after residents fled and after power companies cut electricity to prevent further fires. Schools in all three communities were canceled for Friday, and some schools were being used as shelters for residents.

Lawrence resident Bruce Razin was among the evacuees standing outside the Colonial Heights neighborhood near the city’s high school trying to decide what to do next late Thursday.

Officials had cut power in the area and the streets were pitch black, save for emergency vehicle lights. Razin said he arrived just as residents were being evacuated, and immediately saw the house two doors down was leveled from an explosion.

“I couldn’t imagine if that was my house,” said Razin, who purchased his home nearly two years ago. “It’s total destruction. I’d be completely devastated.”

With a backpack filled with personal items he had hastily grabbed, he said he’d head to his mother’s home a few towns over for the night.

In Lawrence, a man whose neighborhood was among dozens that erupted in fire says he ran into his basement to find that the room was glowing. Resident Ra Nam says he was in his yard when the smoke detector in his basement went off around 4:30 p.m. EDT Thursday.

When he ran downstairs and saw the boiler on fire, he quickly grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out. Minutes later, Nam said he heard a loud boom from his neighbor’s house and the ground shook. Nam said a woman and two kids had made it out of the house but the basement was on fire.

Lawrence General Hospital said it was treating 10 victims, including at least one in critical condition.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized but said investigators were still examining what happened.

Columbia 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.

Reached by phone, some local officials described scenes of panic as residents rushed to evacuate, many wondering if their homes would be next to erupt in flames. In North Andover, town selectman Phil Decologero said his entire neighborhood had gathered in the street, afraid to enter their homes. Just a few streets down, he said, homes were burning.

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

Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to be torn apart by blasts. At one, the upper portion of a brick chimney crushed an SUV parked in the driveway.

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.

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

Joseph Solomon, the police chief in nearby Methuen, said 20 to 25 homes were on fire in Lawrence when he responded to help. He said there are so many fires “you can’t even see the sky.”

The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 26 miles (40 kilometers) 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 is a very resilient community. We’re going to get through this together,” Mayor Dan Rivera told reporters as emergency lights illuminated smoke in the night sky nearby.

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

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

— 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 Con Ed 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.”

— In September 2010, a Pacific Gas and Electric gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.

Philip Marcelo of the Associated Press wrote much of this report, with Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin Richer and Collin Binkley contributing from Boston.

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