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Mass. gas situation 'stabilized'; officials urge caution as NH residents among those helping out

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 14. 2018 11:02PM
Lawrence, Mass. Mayor Dan Rivera, flanked by state and local officials, answers questions about a gas emergency in the Merrimack Valley at a press conference Friday morning. 

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — When Cindy Wang of Londonderry arrived at her brother’s apartment in this northern Massachusetts town Thursday night, the building’s seemingly normal exterior belied the damage done inside.

The only evidence was the smoke.

A gas explosion had rung out in the building, and in dozens of others across three communities in the Merrimack Valley during a deadly night of fires. Wang’s brother, who is autistic, and the other residents were forced to evacuate. He stayed with her in Londonderry Thursday night and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Some 8,000 people had little hope of returning home soon as investigators scrambled on Friday to find out the cause of the dozens of gas explosions that destroyed scores of homes in the biggest such accident in nearly a decade.

The blasts on Thursday killed one person and left more than a dozen injured while leaving more than 18,000 homes and businesses without power, according to emergency officials.

With evacuation orders in place for large portions of North Andover, Andover, and Lawrence, Wang was one of hundreds who showed up at emergency Red Cross shelters seeking help and answers. They wondered when they could return to their homes what they would find and, above all, what had happened.

“I haven’t been able to get in (to my brother’s building),” Wang said outside North Andover High School, which was serving as a shelter and supply distribution point. “I’m assuming, based on the location of where the smoke was, that his apartment is shot.”

As of Friday afternoon, residences connected to around 8,500 of the company’s meters were under forced evacuation orders and homeowners in areas deemed safe were urged not to turn their gas back on if either they or utility crews had turned it off.

“This incident is stabilized,” Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency Director Kurt Schwartz said during a late-morning press conference at the emergency command center in Lawrence. But “when you return to your home, if the gas is turned off, under no circumstances should you turn it back on.”

A few hours later, however, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced that he was declaring a state of emergency.

This sudden administrative move permitted Baker to designate Eversource Gas as the agency to quarterback recovery efforts to restore gas service to the affected customers and not Columbia Gas, the incumbent provider.

“The follow through just wasn’t there. We don’t have time,” Baker said. “We need to get on with this.”

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said city officials were unable to get Columbia Gas to answer basic questions.

“There is no 100 percent knowledge of what the total pressure was on those lines,” Rivera said.

“They wasted last night calling the other utilities to come in and my understanding was this was because they didn’t want to be here.”

A short time later Columbia Gas President Steve Bryant ended the company’s silence on the incident by hosting his own press conference.

“We’re sorry and deeply concerned about the inconvenience. This is the kind of thing a gas distribution company hopes never happens,” Bryant said.

The gas company executive said he couldn’t comment on the cause of the incident and did not criticize Baker’s decision.

“We’ve been using all our resources to get this project as far down the road as possible. I respect the governor’s judgment.” Bryant said.

Columbia Gas officials had turned off meters in nearly 3,300 residents and businesses in the three towns and Bryant said he hoped to restore service to everyone by the end of this weekend.

Fire departments from across the Granite State provided mutual aid to the three Massachusetts communities into early Friday morning. Schwartz said there were between 60 and 80 fires in structures connected to the Columbia Gas distribution system. They injured more than two dozen people and 18-year-old Leonel Rondon of Lawrence died when a chimney from an exploded house fell on his car.

“What happened in the Merrimack Valley yesterday was a tragic incident,” read a statement on the Columbia Gas website. “We are saddened to learn of the death of a young man as a result of these events. Our thoughts and continued support are with those who have been injured and affected.”

Massachusetts State Police said around 70 fires, explosions or investigations of gas odor had been reported on Thursday, though by Friday afternoon officials said that all had been extinguished. It was unclear how many of the fires and explosions were in homes or other locations.

It was the largest natural gas pipeline accident, in terms of the number of buildings involved, in the United States since 2010, when an interstate natural gas transmission line operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Company ruptured in San Bruno, Calif., destroying 38 buildings, damaging 70 more, and killing eight people, according to a Reuters analysis of incident reports from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Investigators suspected that over-pressurization of a gas main belonging to Columbia Gas of Massachusetts led to the series of explosions and fires, Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield said on Thursday.

The Salem (N.H.) Fire Department was one of the first to be called in for help. It sent two engines, a tower truck, and a heavy rescue vehicle to Lawrence and another engine to North Andover.

“Something of that size and magnitude — it’s not something I think any of us has ever experienced before,” Salem Fire Chief Larry Best said.His crews didn’t arrive back in New Hampshire until after 6 a.m.

Engines from Manchester, Rochester, Portsmouth, and many other New Hampshire towns assisted with fire suppression, he said, sometimes clearing one scene only to drive past another house on fire.

Angela Savastano of North Andover said the first indication she had that something was wrong was seeing a Plaistow, N.H., fire engine on her street when she arrived home from work. A house down the block had exploded.

She and her son called hotel after hotel Thursday night, looking without success for somewhere nearby to stay. Eventually, they drove to Boston to stay with her parents. Even after hearing reassurances that the situation was stabilized, Savastano said she’s still worried about her home.

“With gas, you’re always afraid because how do we know that they really did shut it all off?” she said.

While residents of Andover and North Andover were able to move through their community with relative freedom, it was a different story in Lawrence.

The south side of the city was completely shut down to allow emergency crews to work in the more congested, urban setting. Police cruisers blocked highway exit ramps and diverted traffic on city streets, causing long delays.

As the scope of the crisis became clear, anger built toward Columbia Gas.

Sue Willis of North Andover lives in an area considered safe but she was desperate for information. When she got a text message from Columbia Gas that included a number to call to find out when a crew could turn her gas back on, she quickly dialed it.

“When you call, it says that they’re closed and there’s no answering machine,” Willis said.

Gov. Baker promised that there would be a full investigation once residents’ safety was ensured and that responsible parties would be held accountable. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board traveled to Massachusetts from Washington, D.C., on Friday to assist state agencies.

In the meantime, residents waited and neighbors looked for ways to help.

Kathleen Doyle of Hampstead said she still has family and friends in the Merrimack Valley, including one person who was displaced by the fires.

Doyle was at the shelter set up at North Andover High School on Friday, picking up a bag of food and other supplies to take to a nearby fire station.

“I was on my way to work,” she said. “But I couldn’t sleep last night thinking of everybody.”

Information from Reuters was used in this report.

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