LAWRENCE, Mass. — For miles around, the neighborhoods were oddly empty and silent. Stores were dark, schools closed and playing fields empty. At corners, the stoplights were powerless and blank, but it didn’t really matter since only a few cars ventured by.For miles around, much of Lawrence and parts of Andover and North Andover were…
LAWRENCE, Mass. — For miles around, the neighborhoods were oddly empty and silent. Stores were dark, schools closed and playing fields empty. At corners, the stoplights were powerless and blank, but it didn’t really matter since only a few cars ventured by.
For miles around, much of Lawrence and parts of Andover and North Andover were completely still, like the facade of a movie set after the actors had all vanished. Homes were vacant, stores darkened, supermarkets shuttered, schools called off and playing fields empty.
Commerce had ground to a halt. Traffic lights were black. The few cars on the road – mostly news media — crawled through intersections. With no breeze, even the flags on Main Street in North Andover hung motionless, making the street look like a still-life painting, stuck in some warped zone where people did not exist.
As state and federal investigators began sifting through damage across three Massachusetts towns, thousands of residents were told not to return to their homes on Friday morning after a sudden series of gas explosions and fires that ripped through the region the night before.
The numbers were overwhelming: 8,500 homes or businesses had been affected by an overpressurized gas line and many of them needed to remain empty for now, the authorities said. As many as 80 buildings had been burned. Some 150 emergency calls had come in from stunned residents reporting the smell of gas, a blaze or a blast of some sort, and 400 people had wound up sleeping in five shelters that were hastily opened overnight.
The chain of incidents in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, north of Boston, left one person dead and more than 20 injured.
Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management, said the exact cause of the disaster is still unknown, but officials were focused on the possibility that natural gas had become overpressurized along thousands of lines to homes and businesses.
“All we can say at this point is that the investigation is in its very preliminary stages,” he said.
Residents were increasingly frustrated as they sought answers from a local gas company, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, but the company was saying little. On Thursday night, the company had issued a short statement: “Columbia Gas crews are currently responding to reports of multiple fires in Lawrence. Our thoughts are with everyone affected by today’s incident.”
Earlier Thursday, Columbia Gashad announcedthat it was upgrading natural gas lines in neighborhoods across the state.
By Friday morning, teams of gas workers, firefighters and police were going door to door, shutting off gas in south Lawrence, a densely populated area where many Spanish-speaking immigrants live.
The gas companysaid in a statementthat workers would need to visit more than 8,000 customers to inspect gas meters.
At a news conference, the mayor of Lawrence, Dan Rivera, instructed residents in both English and Spanish to stay away from the area until further notice and assured undocumented residents that they had nothing to fear at shelters that the city has set up.
“We don’t want folks coming back to an apartment that has not been cleared and have an issue with gas exposure,” he said.
[Dozens of homes burn in Andover and Lawrence, Mass., gas explosions.]
The investigation into the cause is being conducted by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, who arrived in Massachusetts overnight, along with investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Sine 1998, at least 646 serious gas distribution incidents have occurred, causing 221 deaths and nearly a thousand people injured, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Massachusetts has not suffered a serious incident since 2012, the data shows.
Most of South Lawrence was evacuated Thursday night and remained a ghost town on Friday, but Jason Tibbitts decided to stay in his home. He thought looters would be roaming the streets, so he sent his family to stay with relatives nearby while he guarded the fort.
As it turned out, all was quiet. Dead quiet. Ninety percent of his neighbors had left, said Mr. Tibbitts, 45, the assistant manager of an auto parts store.
“Normally, there’s lots of noise here,” Mr. Tibbitts said Friday, standing on his porch and peering out at the deserted street. “You hear the kids, you see the traffic. But this, this is like real early Sunday morning. Just nothing.”
Mr. Tibbitts was awakened at 5 AM Friday by gas inspectors, who were checking gas meters in the neighborhood. A huge fire truck trained its spotlights on his house while inspectors went inside. Yes, they confirmed, he had no gas and no power.
Authorities could not say when either gas or power would be restored or when people could return to their homes. Many residents who had fled the scene Thursday without their medications or pets were calling town officials seeking escorts to get into their homes so they could grab their essentials.
Gail Shea, 66, a field coordinator for the Boston Public Schools, also stayed in her house in North Andover Thursday, but she said she might spend Friday night with a friend.
“I’ve got no power, and I can’t charge my phone,” she said, clutching her little dog Lily. “Basically, it’s pretty boring.”
Andrew Maylor, the town manager for North Andover, could offer little hard information to residents who approached him in an empty parking lot, where he was meeting with utility officials.
Getting back home is not merely a matter of waiting for the gas to be turned on. All meters in each neighborhood have to be shut down first, he said. Only then can power be restored. And after that, officials have to check buildings for possible damage to the infrastructure and then re-light all the pilot lights.
“I can’t make any commitment about when the gas will be restored,” Mr. Maylor told residents. “But it will be north of 48 hours.”
He apologized for not being able to give them what he said they most wanted – “comfort and certainty.”
Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California who has studied gas pipeline accidents for thirty years, said he had never seen one spread across such a large geographical area.
“All the other pipeline accidents that I have looked at have been very localized,” he said. “This one is a mystery to me. Why you have so many houses in such a dispersed area? I have not seen anything of this magnitude.”
The most common cause of gas pipeline explosions, he said, are leaks due to age and corrosion that catch a spark, or construction workers accidentally striking a pipe that they did not know was there.
But because of the series of explosions and fires, occurring across three municipalities, Mr. Meshkati suspected a “cascading effect,” where one event causes triggers a series of others.