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Families allowed to return to homes following gas explosions

Staff Report
September 16. 2018 9:55PM
Plaistow firefighters head to the Merrimack Valley to deliver supplies , including bottled water and diapers. (COURTESY PHOTO)

A sign marks a Columbia Gas of Massachusetts facility. The utility is under investigation after dozens of explosions and fires were triggered last week in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover, Mass. (REUTERS)

Hours after residents were given the go-ahead by Massachusetts and local officials to return to their homes — and four days after gas explosions and fires forced them to evacuate — firefighters were busy battling a three-alarm fire that tore through an apartment complex in Lawrence.

The 9:30 a.m. fire was reported by a couple who had just returned home to the building on Diamond Street after having been evacuated Thursday night.

The Lawrence fire chief and the fire marshal said via Twitter the incident was not related to the 60 to 80 gas explosions and fires that happened last week.

On Sunday, first responders from New Hampshire continued to assist with efforts to return life to some semblance of normal in the affected communities.

On Sunday, Salem fire crews assisted firefighters from Lawrence, North Andover and Andover responding to service calls. Plaistow firefighters delivered supplies to the victims, including bottled water and diapers.

“We still have a long way to go, but I am so happy that people can return back home this morning,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said in a tweet. “There will be 120 representatives from the utilities out in neighborhoods in the three communities to assist with any questions people may have as they return home.”

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Sunday the investigation is currently looking at pressure sensors connected to a Columbia Gas line being taken out of service shortly before the explosions.

The sensors can signal for gas pressure to be increased if the pressure gets too low, he said.

NTSB investigators will be in the city for seven to 10 days. Final conclusions on the incident may take up to two years, however, Sumwalt said.

Part of the NTSB investigation will focus on the response of Columbia Gas to the crisis. The utility serves 50,000 customers in Massachusetts.

The restoration of electric service, cut by National Grid to 18,500 customers Thursday night to prevent additional fires, came as a relief for residents as well as state and local officials.

But utility spokespeople warned it could be “a significant amount of time” before gas service is restored to customers in the three communities. More than 8,000 gas connections were turned off and must now be turned on by utility workers, a process that could take several days.

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Eversource urged its customers to make sure there is a clear path to their outdoor meters.

Alec O’Meara, media relations manager for Unitil, said gas leaks can be detected by the rotten-egg smell caused by an additive in the gas, the sound of hissing from devices that use gas, or a shimmer in the air.

“If you do suspect a gas leak you should, step one, immediately leave the area, and step two, call your utility,” O’Meara said.

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