Residents can go home after Massachusetts explosions, but long road to ‘normalcy’ remains

Multiple suspected gas explosions have set structures on fire across dozens of blocks and forced evacuations in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Massachusetts State Police said Thursday.

Three Massachusetts cities are nearing a critical first step of recovery — ensuring homes are safe and have power — after a deadly series of fires and explosions last week, Gov. Charlie Baker said.

Utility workers accessed 8,600 meters, turned them off and cleared each home of gas in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover as of 6:30 a.m. Sunday, the governor said. All homes should have power restored by later in the morning, he said.

“We still have a very long way to go, but we’re very happy that people can return to their homes this morning,” Baker said.

At least one person, a teen, was killed and several more were injured when more than 60 suspected gas fires broke out in the three towns north of Boston. Thousands were evacuated, and 18,000 people lost power at one point.

Andover Fire Rescue Chief Michael Mansfield likened the scene to “Armageddon.”

Leonel Rondon, 18, was killed after a chimney that had been blown off a home in one of the explosions struck a car in Lawrence, CNN affiliate WHDH reported. He died at a hospital, authorities said.

An investigation into what caused the fires and blasts remains underway, but on Saturday, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that a pipeline controller in Columbus, Ohio, noticed a pressure increase in a pipeline in Lawrence.

The NTSB, which is investigating because transportation — in this case, of natural gas — was involved, will look into system procedures, operations and safety culture at Columbia Gas and its parent company NiSource, as well as construct a timeline of events surrounding the fires.

“We are very interested to understand the operations of Columbia Gas. We will be looking at their record keeping, their procedural compliance, their procedures, their training, the oversight of their contractors,” Sumwalt said, adding that he expects his agency expects to remain in the area through the week, if not longer.

A full report on the exact cause may not be complete for up to two years, he said.

There is no evidence that anything nefarious contributed to the fires, Sumwalt said.

The next two phases of recovery, Baker said, will be assessing damage to the low-pressure gas system and having technicians inspect each piece of equipment that distributes gas.

Police and fire personnel, as well as 120 utility representatives, will be on standby as people return to their homes, the governor said. Residents should contact authorities if they smell gas, or notice fire-related damage or anything odd with their gas appliances, he said.

“It’s going to be a complicated process to get you back to normalcy,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said.

Residents, he said, they should make sure to keep lists of any expenses they incurred from their displacement whether it’s spoiled groceries and broken appliances or child care and lost wages.

Authorities hope to have a plan — and perhaps hotels — for the dozen or so families permanently displaced soon, Rivera said.

The Red Cross reported Friday that about 400 people were staying in shelters. The remaining displaced residents, which officials say are in the thousands, likely stayed with friends and family, Red Cross spokesman Jeff Hall said.

Baker declared a state of emergency Friday and said New England-based Eversource would replace Columbia Gas as the lead utility in the recovery efforts. The governor and Columbia Gas of Massachusetts president Steve Bryant have quibbled over the utility’s level of preparedness.