LAWRENCE, MA — Homes in three towns north of Boston went up in flames on Thursday, consumed by more than 60 suspected gas fires.
One house exploded, sending the chimney flying. It crashed into a nearby car, fatally wounding a teenager who was inside. Leonel Rondon, 18, and two of his friends were in the car when the debris struck, his family told CNN affiliate WHDH. He later died in the hospital, authorities said.
In Lawrence, Massachusetts, a boiler inside Ra Nam’s house caught fire, he told CNN affiliate WCVB.
Minutes later, he said he heard a loud booming sound from his neighbor’s house. Three people rushed out.
About 25 people, including two firefighters, were wounded, officials said.
“This has been an overwhelming event,” Andover Fire Rescue Chief Michael B. Mansfield told reporters. “I have been in the fire service for almost 39 years and I have never seen anything like this in my entire career. … It looked like Armageddon, it really did.”
The blazes left 8,000 people unable to go home on Thursday. A middle school in North Andover and a senior center in Andover were set up for evacuees, according to the state police.
Schools will be closed Friday in Lawrence and Andove. All state offices in all three towns will be also closed, and nonemergency employees have been asked to stay home.
Thousands can’t go home
Information about the full extent of the damage was not immediately available Thursday evening, and authorities cautioned that it was “far too early to speculate” on the cause of the explosions.
Earlier on Thursday, before the fires broke out, the utility company that services the area announced it would be upgrading natural gas lines in neighborhoods across the state.
“Weather permitting, work will take place Monday through Friday,” Columbia Gas said in a statement. Andover, North Andover and Lawrence were included in the planned projects.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said he urged Columbia Gas to develop a “comprehensive safety inspection plan.”
“We’ll work with the federal government and others to investigate how this occurred and hold the appropriate parties accountable for their actions,” Baker said.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said residents won’t be allowed to return home until crews inspect every home and make sure there are no more gas leaks.
“We are not sure that’s going to be anytime soon. Make plans for at least between now and this time tomorrow,” Rivera said early on Friday.
The explosions and emergency response caused Amtrak to cancel four train routes between Boston and Maine. Passengers on three were being moved by bus.
The National Transportation Safety Board will send a team to the area on Friday.
Gas, power shut off
Gas technicians and first responders were going door-to-door reviewing thousands of homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover and shutting down gas mains as residents wait in shelters.
Officials were also shutting down power in the three towns, state police said on Thursday evening. About 18,000 customers were without power.
In a statement released Thursday night, Columbia Gas said only that crews were responding to multiple fires in the area.
“The first priority for our crews at the scene is to ensure the safety of our customers and the community by supporting first responders and completing safety checks on our system and in the surrounding area,” the utility company said in the statement.
It also said its thoughts are “with everyone affected by today’s incident.”
Gas service had been interrupted for 250 customers in Lawrence last month due to a “hit line by a third party,” according to Columbia Gas.
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