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Suspected Gas Explosions In Massachusetts


Today explosions tore through homes in three towns north of Boston, the towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. Massachusetts State Police say the explosions are suspected to be gas-related, and they confirm that they responded to at least 70 reports of fire explosion or gas odor. That number will likely grow.

NPR's Tovia Smith joins us from just outside Boston. And, Tovia, tell us what the scene there is now. These images this afternoon of houses on fire have been just extraordinary.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Right. And now it is equally so. It is dark, really dark since power has been cut to the entire area as a precaution. That's meant to keep residents from creating a spark that could ignite yet another explosion. So it's utter darkness out there except of course for the fires that are still blazing, some smoldering and the flashing sirens and lights of the fire trucks and the first responders who have swarmed these three communities from near and far. Meantime, officials continue to tell residents to evacuate immediately. The mayor of Lawrence, Dan Rivera, recently clarified that means not just residents who are customers of Columbia Gas. But everyone in South Lawrence, he says, should get out.


DAN RIVERA: If you have not evacuated, you just got to go. You've got to get out of your home and evacuate. Don't wait for there to be a fire in your neighborhood. Don't wait until you see something. Trust us when we tell you if you stay in your home, you're going to be at risk.

SMITH: Authorities say that the gas lines are currently being depressurized by the gas company, but they say that will take some time. So again, authorities say this may get worse before it gets better.

SHAPIRO: And with so many dozens of incidents across these three towns, do we know how many people were injured or killed in these fires?

SMITH: We're just trying to piece it together from the hospitals in the area. It looks like around 10 are in the hospitals with at least a couple in critical condition. Officials say one firefighter is among the injured. We know that. But officials are declining to comment any more specifically on the extent of injuries. We can really only imagine. If you see these houses, they are just completely decimated. So many went up in flames in an instant. They were totally consumed, thrown by the explosions, collapsed in on themselves. So the fear continues about what will explode next. And really it's a moving target, as we heard just a few minutes ago from Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansford (ph).


CHIEF MICHAEL MANSFIELD: We had companies out there that were responding to a building fire. They would extinguish the building fire. They would come outside, and they'd find the next building next door on fire as well - so, yeah, quite a different experience than we're used to.

SMITH: That's for sure. Shelters have been opened across the area. There is confusion and fear as folks are really trying to figure out what to do and where to go.

SHAPIRO: You've mentioned that this is seemingly connected to a gas company, but is there any more information about what caused this awful catastrophe?

SMITH: It's still early. The word from the company is really just get out of the area. But earlier today we did get - Columbia Gas did issue a notice saying that they were going to be upgrading the natural gas lines in the neighborhoods across the state, which would lead to better safety in the long term. The exact cause remains unclear. And Governor Charlie Baker we heard from a few minutes ago - says these answers may take a while to get to.


CHARLIE BAKER: There will be plenty of time later tonight, tomorrow morning and into the next day to do some of the work around determining exactly what happened and why and what needs to be done to deal with that. But the focus in the short term is to make sure that we do everything we can to provide safety in the communities that have been directly affected by this.

SMITH: Gas company officials are supposed to address reporters later tonight, so we may know a little bit more. But the governor says the urgency now is just to maintain safety in this huge swath of area that is completely in the dark.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tovia Smith covering these explosions in Massachusetts. We will have more on Morning Edition tomorrow. Thank you, Tovia.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.