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Massachusetts Gas Leaks Set Off Series Of Explosions


Residents of three communities north of Boston are asking what happened after about 80 gas explosions and fires that erupted throughout the community yesterday. One person was killed, and thousands of families are waiting to find out when they can go home again. From member station WGBH, Craig LeMoult has this report.


CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: A day after natural gas ignited in dozens of homes here, emergency vehicles still filled the streets of evacuated neighborhoods in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.


LEMOULT: Gas workers hammered away at the streets, opening up small manholes to check for additional leaks. The area is about 25 miles north of Boston. It's a mix of low-income and more affluent neighborhoods. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has declared a state of emergency in the area and has put a new utility in charge of restoring service.


CHARLIE BAKER: Once the utilities secure the affected areas, we'll work with the federal government to investigate how this occurred and who should be held accountable for the results and their actions.

LEMOULT: The explosions are believed to have been caused by a problem in high-pressure gas lines. But there is still a lot of unanswered questions. Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera blasted the gas utility. He says officials at Columbia Gas were slow to act and haven't been forthcoming.


DAN RIVERA: My fire and police chiefs both have sought answers that they have not been provided. We still to this date - there is no 100 percent knowledge of what the total pressure was that was on those lines.

LEMOULT: Camille Wilkins of Andover arrived at a shelter Thursday night after her gas furnace burst into flames.

CAMILLE WILKINS: We opened the cellar door. It was total smoke. My husband had a fire extinguisher, went downstairs, put it out. We called the fire department. The whole thing is scary.

LEMOULT: I'm just across the street right now from a house in Lawrence that exploded last night. The whole house is tipped forward towards one corner, and there are outer walls leaning against the structure and debris in the yard and in the street. Eighteen-year-old Leonel Rondon was sitting in his car right here last night when the house blew up, and the chimney fell on the car killing him. Lawrence City Councilor Marc Laplante lives just around the corner from here.

MARC LAPLANTE: I'm just lucky to live in a city like this where we've got people who pull together. And this neighborhood, this part of the city, this entire city has pulled together in ways that are frankly I'm not so surprised about.

LEMOULT: Bruce Razin lives two doors down from the explosion that killed Rondon. He was evacuated last night and was allowed back to get his cat. And as much as he wants to return home, he's uneasy about it.

BRUCE RAZIN: I'm afraid to go in my house. You know, you don't know what can happen at any minute. I mean, at least now, it's safer because they've shut the gas off. But that's not going to tell me, you know, will I be able to live in my house and not worry that it's going to blow up.

LEMOULT: It's a fear that's shared by many in this community as questions remain about what caused a chain of devastating gas fires here. Federal investigators are in the towns now looking for answers to those questions. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Lawrence, Mass. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.