Officials, Columbia Gas Hunting for Cause of Deadly Explosions in Lawrence, North Andover, Andover

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By Colin A. Young

Public safety officials in the Merrimack Valley are getting a clearer view Friday morning of the destruction from Thursday’s fatal gas-related explosions and fires and though an over-pressurized gas distribution system is thought to be at fault, the investigation is just getting underway.

Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said Friday morning that the situation had “stabilized” and that there had been no new gas-related fires since Thursday night. He said crews responded to 150 emergency calls and 60 to 80 structure fires on Thursday. About 400 people stayed at the five shelters that had opened, he said.

One man, 18-year-old Leonel Robson of Lawrence, died as a result of a gas explosion Thursday, the Essex district attorney’s office announced. The DA said Robson was sitting in a car outside 35 Chickering Road in Lawrence when an apparent explosion knocked the house’s chimney onto the car.

With thousands of people evacuated from Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, and with electricity cut to the area, Governor Charlie Baker on Friday morning said officials are working to determine exactly when and where people can safely return to their homes.

“Everyone here understands the massive inconvenience that everyone is going through,” the governor said. “This will not be a simple process and doing it right is essential to making sure everyone remains safe.”

The investigation “as I understand it will not be focused on the end users of the gas but on the distribution system and the origin of the pressure,” said Schwartz. “I know people want to know about the cause,” he said. “All we’re going to say at this point and all we can say is the investigation is in its very preliminary stages.” He said there was “no information to provide on causation.”

Columbia Gas, the gas provider for the Merrimack Valley and other parts of the state, said the restoration effort will require its workers to “visit each of the 8,600 affected customers to shut off each gas meter and conduct a safety inspection.”

“What happened in the Merrimack Valley yesterday was a tragic incident. We are saddened to learn of the death of a young man as a result of these events. Our thoughts and continued support are with those who have been injured and affected,” the company said in a statement Friday morning. “We expect this will be an extended restoration effort, and we will work tirelessly to restore service to the affected customers.”

Columbia Gas said customers in the affected areas should “call us and arrange for us to meet you at your property to make sure the house is cleared and your gas meter is shut off.”

“Please do not enter your house unless you are accompanied by a gas company representative,” the company added in bold text on its website. Customers can call 1-866-388-3239.

Crews from other utility companies will be brought in to assist Columbia Gas, the company said. On Thursday night, gas workers from United Steelworkers Locals 12003 and 12012 who are currently locked out amid union negotiations with National Grid offered to assist in restoring service to the Merrimack Valley.

Columbia Gas said it is “working with the appropriate authorities to investigate this incident in order to understand its cause.”

Schwartz said Columbia Gas was on scene Thursday with first responders and that they have been in communication with state officials.

“They have been on scene, we met through the night, completely working together and coordinated,” he said. “They will speak separately. You are going to hear from them today.”

Democratic candidate for governor Jay Gonzalez said he is “outraged by the slow response from Columbia Gas to the devastation caused by its gas pipelines.” On Thursday night, Baker said the company’s response to that point had been “adequate.”

“Four hours after the first fires occurred, the Andover Fire Chief had still not received any contact from the company or reassurance that the problem was being fixed,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “Columbia Gas’s response was anything but adequate and the company needs to be held accountable for its slow response and any other actions that contributed to yesterday’s tragedy.”

Baker said Friday morning that hundreds of natural gas technicians would be heading to the affected areas over the next few days. He said they would “deploy to do the work they need to do, house by house, to ensure that each building is safe to return to.

“Once the neighborhoods are cleared, the electricity can then be restored,” Baker said. “That is the priority for us at this time.”

Baker and other officials urged residents outside the affected area who turned off their gas service to not attempt to turn their gas back on. Instead, residents should contact the gas company and wait for a professional to turn their service back on.

All roads in south Lawrence remained closed Friday morning, the city’s police department said, and several off-ramps from Interstate-495 were also closed.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera cautioned residents that the recovery effort in his city would be different from the response efforts in the neighboring suburbs due to the city’s density, size, and other factors.

“Lawrence is going to be different from North Andover and Andover. Not because we want to treat folks differently but because it’s a little bit more complicated situation,” he said.

An official from the National Transportation Safety Bureau said Friday morning that a team of the agency’s investigators was en route to Massachusetts and cited a fatal 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, as a recent similar incident the federal agency investigated. Schwartz mentioned other gas explosions in Danvers and Lexington as possible analogs.

Emergency in Merrimack Valley

The events unfolded late in the afternoon Thursday and it took some time for the scope of the problem to become evident. By mid-evening, thousands of Merrimack Valley residents evacuated their homes and businesses.

Massachusetts State Police at 7:25 p.m. Thursday confirmed an explosion, fire or investigation of gas odor at 70 addresses in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. The agency said it was too early to speculate about a cause, but also tweeted “Gas lines are currently being depressurized by the company it will take some time.”

“All residents of Lawrence/Andover/N Andover who have Columbia Gas must evacuate, as should anyone else who smells gas,” State Police said Thursday, later adding that teams were being assembled to conduct block-by-block evacuations. Students at Merrimack College had also been evacuated, officials said.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency also referred to the incident as “related to the gas line over-pressurization” and said crews were on scene to assist and coordinate with local officials. The state’s fire mobilization plan was “activated for 4 structural fire task forces for mutual aid assistance from other parts of the state,” the state agency said.

Governor Charlie Baker left an event in the South End early Thursday and was driven back to the State House, where he entered his office on the floor that includes a conference room with TV and communications equipment at about 5:30 p.m.. He did not respond to questions from reporters and his office later issued a statement saying the governor was in contact with public safety officials and urging residents to heed directives from local officials.

Media reports showed multiple building fires burning and at least one home that appeared to have exploded. Lawrence General Hospital said at about 8 p.m.that it was treating “six patients from the gas explosion, two in critical condition.” The hospital said it would “continue to prepare for multiple casualties.”

At one point Thursday, crews in Andover were battling 18 fires at the same time and fought 35 in total, according to John Guilfoil, a spokesman who works for multiple police and fire departments. As of 7:10 p.m., all fires had been extinguished in Andover, Guilfoil said. Three people in Andover had been injured, including one firefighter, he said.

He said the Andover chief called for a 10-alarm response — the town’s “maximum traditional fire response” — at 5:01 p.m. but that many of the 20 fire engines and 10 ladder trucks from other towns that would have been bound for Andover were diverted because of concurrent “10-alarm situations” in Lawrence and North Andover.

At 7:05 p.m. Thursday, State Police tweeted that the power company would be “shutting OFF power to all of #Lawrence, #NorthAndover, and #Andover to assist in the #Gas situation.” All off ramps from Interstate-495 between Exits 42 and 45 were closed, though traffic will still be allowed to access I-495 to facilitate area evacuations, State Police said.