One man is dead and up to 12 injured after dozens of gas explosions believed to have been triggered by a natural gas pipeline in three towns north of Boston in the US have forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
Up to 100 buildings caught on fire after the explosions late afternoon Thursday (local time) in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, about 40km north of the Massachusetts capital.
Entire neighbourhoods ran in panic from their homes, highway exits were blocked to keep traffic away from affected areas, and police ordered mass evacuations with up to 100 structure fires said to be burning – including dozens of houses that fire services were struggling to save.
Authorities say the young man, 18, of Lawrence, died after being rushed to hospital in Boston when a chimney from an exploding house crashed onto his car.
Lawrence General Hospital spokeswoman Jill McDonald Halsey said six people were being treated and at least three, including one firefighter were hurt in Andover.
Gas and electric power was turned off to prevent further explosions and at the peak of the crisis as 18 houses in Andover were burning at the same time, meaning fire responders were needed to be called in from neighbouring towns.
Many residents were standing in the street said to be panicked with worry that their houses were next to go up in flames.
“Not a drill: Anyone in the Lawrence, Andover and North Andover area who smells gas needs to leave immediately,’’ tweeted Boston 25 News.
“If you are in a gas-serviced area and your electricity is shut off, DO NOT use candles,” Andover Police said on Twitter.
— Leo Ruiz (@ProducerLeo) September 13, 2018
The Massachusetts fire marshal’s office were investigating a report that the blasts had resulted from over-pressurisation of the gas line which was about to undergo an upgrade.
“This has been an overwhelming event,” Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield said.
“It looked like Armageddon, it really did.”
“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.”
Chief Mansfield said fire companies responding to blazes were putting one house fire out only to discover another house on fire as they finished their work.
“This event is not over tonight. This event will probably go on … probably another week, a week and a half,” he said.
But crime scene units are also investigating.
Confirmed fires/explosions plotted on map by MSP Watch Center. As seen, incidents are across a wide swath of dozens of blocks across Lawrence and North Andover. pic.twitter.com/0GoLK0Q94q
— Mass State Police (@MassStatePolice) September 13, 2018
Massachusetts State Police said that it was “far too early to speculate’’ as to what caused the explosions. Remarkably, given Boston’s recent history there was no rush to blame terrorism.
Joseph Solomon, the police chief in nearby Methuen, whose fire trucks were lending assistance, told AP there are so many fires “you can’t even see the sky”.
In neighbouring North Andover, town official 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.’’
North Andover, resident Garry Frizzell, 50, told The Boston Globe that he smelled gas in his house at 4.45 pm.
“I said, ‘I left the stove on’ — then I realised I hadn’t used it in three days,” he said. Two houses were burning nearby.
Lawrence resident Ra Nam told reporters he’d been in his backyard when the smoke detector in his basement went off around 4.30 pm. He found his boiler alight – and put out the fire with an extinguisher. Minutes layer he heard a “boom’’ and the ground shook. His neighbour’s basement had exploded.
The Columbia Gas company had announced earlier in the day that it would be upgrading gas lines across the state, including the neighbourhoods where the explosions happened.
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 in a statement. “The first priority for our crews at the scene is to ensure the safety of our customers and the community.”
By late Thursday (local time), all of the fire at leasts had been doused but many areas remained silent and dark after residents fled.