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'It Looked Like Armageddon': 1 Dead After Gas Explosions, Fires

LAWRENCE (CBS) - One person is dead and dozens more were injured in a series of gas explosions and fires that damaged homes in three communities north of Boston Thursday afternoon.

A gas main was over-pressurized affecting customers in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover. Anyone who has gas service from Columbia Gas was told to leave their homes until further notice. Teams consisting of gas technicians, fire and police personnel were going door-to-door to make sure the gas is shut off to about 8,500 meters in homes and businesses. According to MEMA, 3,500 of those meters were checked overnight, but there is still no further information about the cause.

Read: List Of Streets Where Emergency Crews Will Visit

Read: Andover Safe Streets List

Read: North Andover Safe Streets List

In a news conference Friday, Governor Baker urged anyone who's allowed back in their homes to not turn on the gas themselves, but instead wait for the proper authorities to do it.

"Our thoughts are with the community. We are focused on providing as much support as possible to our customers," Columbia Gas said in a tweet Friday morning.  "If you are a customer that has been affected in Merrimack Valley please call our dedicated customer service line 1-866-388-3239."

Figueroa home lawrence
The Figueroa home on Chickering Road in Lawrence exploded Sept. 13, 2018. The chimney crushed an SUV, killing Leonel Rondon. (WBZ-TV)

In Lawrence, a young man was killed when a home exploded on Chickering Road. The Essex District Attorney says 18-year-old Leonel Rondon was inside an SUV in the driveway of the home when a chimney fell on it. Rondon was pronounced dead at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Leonel Rondon
Leonel Rondon (Facebook photo)

Power was shut off in large sections of the three communities as a precaution. Images from WBZ-TV's Skyeye helicopter Thursday night showed huge areas of darkened neighborhoods, illuminated only by the lights of police cruisers, dispersed to keep the peace and direct traffic. Andover Police say the power will be out until at least 9 a.m. Saturday

According to MEMA Director Kurt Schwartz, emergency crews responded to between 60 and 80 fires, and three explosions within a very short time frame.

There were a total of 38 fires in Andover alone. All fires were extinguished by 6:45 p.m. At peak, 18 fires were burning at the same time.

Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield said he has not seen anything like this in his 39-year career.

"It looked like Armageddon, it really did," Chief Mansfield said. "There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me, I could see plumes of smoke in front of me, within the town of Andover, it looked like an absolute war zone."

Merrimack Valley Explosions
A gas explosion destroyed this home in Lawrence, Sept. 13, 2018. (WBZ-TV)

Mansfield estimated it could be a week and a half before every home in Andover is deemed safe for return.

According to MEMA Director Kurt Schwartz, at least 25 people were treated for injuries. Lawrence General Hospital was treating 13 patients from the gas explosions. The injuries ranged from smoke inhalation to "traumatic blast injuries."

It is still not clear what caused the explosions and fires. The Department of Public Utilities and MEMA from a state level, and the Department of Public Utilities and NTSB from the federal level, will be involved in the investigation.

WBZ-TV's Cheryl Fiandaca reports that Columbia Gas was doing work in the area earlier on Thursday.

Governor Charlie Baker described the response by Columbia Gas as "adequate," in a press conference Thursday night.

"There's a lot more work that's left to be done," Gov. Baker said. "If you were to ask me to give a grade I think for all of this at this point it would be incomplete, there's a lot more to do."

Early Friday the governor said the immediate focus remained on ensuring public safety. Once that work is done, Baker said, "we'll work with federal government and others to investigate how this occurred and to hold the appropriate parties accountable for their actions."

Hours after the explosions, Columbia Gas issued a statement saying, "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."

Related: What Evacuated Residents Should Do | Care For Pets

The FBI was also on scene Thursday. "We are coordinating with our law enforcement partners as expected and personnel are on scene, as we normally would be in a situation like this to assess the situation," the FBI said in a statement.

All off-ramps on I-495 from Exits 41 through 45 in the area remain closed early Friday morning. On-ramps remained open to allow evacuations. MBTA service in the area was also impacted. The Haverhill Line commuter rail will only run between Reading and North Station on Friday. Buses will run from Haverhill and Bradford to Woburn.

School was canceled in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover on Friday.

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