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NH firefighters help battle Mass. fires; evacuations announced in three towns

Union Leader Correspondent
New Hampshire Union Leader

September 14. 2018 8:51AM
A building burns after explosions in Lawrence, Mass., in this Thursday photo from social media by Boston Sparks. (Boston Sparks/Social Media/via REUTERS)

Fire burns in a home destroyed in a gas explosion in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday. (JEFFREY HASTINGS PHOTO)

Fire departments from across southern New Hampshire sent crews over the border to Massachusetts Thursday after dozens of fires and gas explosions were reported in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover.

Kingston Fire Chief Bill Seaman said he sent six firefighters from his department, but he had more who were willing to go.

"We had more people than we had seats," he said.

Lawrence General Hospital reported Thursday night it was treating 10 patients, one in critical condition, one serious. “Cases range from smoke inhalation to traumatic blast injuries. One patient has been transported to another hospital,” the Lawrence hospital said in a Facebook post.

Shortly after the explosions began around 5 p.m., Massachusetts State Police issued this bulletin: "Residents in the affected towns who have gas service from Columbia Gas should evacuate their homes immediately if they have not already done so. Gas lines are currently being depressurized by the company; it will take some time."

At 7:25 p.m., state police had tallied 70 responses to fires, explosions or investigations of gas odor in the three communities.

Lawrence, Andover and North Andover were included Thursday morning in an alert from Columbia Gas of Massachusetts telling customers on its website that it was "upgrading natural gas lines in neighborhoods" across the state.

Mary Jo Shafer, a copy editor at the New Hampshire Union Leader, was at her parents' house on Barnard Road in Lawrence as the first reports of fires were coming in. She heard them over a police scanner her dad, a former Lawrence fire chief, keeps in their home.

She said she could see smoke rising from a structure on nearby Mount Vernon Street.

"Everyone's out in the street, trying to see what's going on," said Shafer. "There are a lot of cars at the end of the street. It looks like traffic's moving, but very slowly."

As Shafer was communicating with a Union Leader reporter, she said Massachusetts State Police told her and her parents they needed to evacuate the area.

Firefighters from Kingston, N.H., battle a blaze in North Andover, Mass., Thursday night. (COURTESY OF KINGSTON FIRE DEPARTMENT)

Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan said his department sent Truck 7, a district fire chief, and a rescue unit to join a task force of area fire crews meeting in Derry at Exit 4 off Interstate 93. The group was then immediately dispatched to Lawrence to meet up with other crews gathering at a staging area at the Showcase Cinemas site. They then fanned out into the city as needed. 

"We're also sending Engine 2 directly to a fire burning of Route 114 in Lawrence right now," said Goonan. 

Nashua sent Engine and Ladder 3 to help as well. 

East Kingston Fire Chief Ed Warren joined his crew on their way to a station in North Andover where they would be assigned. 

"Our big concern is making sure we keep track of all our people and our engine crew keeps everybody together so we don't lose anybody in the chaos," Warren said. 

Epping Fire Chief Don DeAngelis said his firefighters were asked to respond to a school in North Andover where they would be staged, along with Brentwood fire crews. 

Warren and Seaman said the last time they responded to Massachusetts for a major blaze was the Malden Mills factory fire in Lawrence in 1995. 

"It's been a long time since we've gone this far away. We expect to be there for hours," Warren said. 

"Thankful for our NH Firefighters who are answering the call to help our neighbors. Praying for those affected," Gov. Chris Sununu said in a tweet.

Holy Family Hospital in nearby Methuen reported just before 10 p.m. that it had seen 10 patients as a result of the fires.

Unitil, which serves parts of southern and Seacoast New Hampshire, said in a tweet it was “aware of the natural gas related fires in the Lawrence/Andover area. This area is not part of Unitil’s system. Our technicians are monitoring our system and are reporting normal conditions.”

Liberty Utilities spokesperson John Shore said the company has on-call technicians standing ready to help Columbia Gas. 

"Our operations director is reaching out to see if ... they need our support," Shore said. 

Union Leader Staff Writer Kevin Landrigan and Union Leader Correspondent Ryan Lessard contributed to this report.

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