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Thousands Displaced, Without Power, In Aftermath Of Gas Fires In Merrimack Valley

A home on Herrick Road in North Andover was one of dozens to experience significant fire due to the gas line explosions in the Merrimack Valley.
Meredith Nierman

Updated at 11:05 a.m.

More than 18,000 homes and businesses are without power Friday morning in the Merrimack Valley, after fires caused by an underground gas line tore through Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover Thursday afternoon.

Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said the incident is "stabilizing," and all fires have been extinguished. An investigation into the cause of the explosions was in "preliminary stages," he added, noting that it would be some time until there were definitive answers.

Crews from Columbia Gas of Massachusetts worked with police and firefighters throughout the night to shut off gas and inspect the gas meters of its approximately 8,500 affected customers. By Friday morning, they were able to get to around 3,500 meters. As residents returned to their homes, state and local officials urged caution.

"Under no circumstances should you turn your gas back on," Schwartz said. He emphasized that residents should call Columbia Gas for help.

There were between 60 and 80 structure fires throughout the three communities, and MEMA said they responded to 150 emergency calls. Thousands of people were displaced and are still not allowed to return to their houses. Twenty-five people are being treated for injuries, and one person — 18-year-old Leonel Rondon — was killed when a chimney fell on his car following an explosion.

In a tweet Friday morning, Columbia Gas said, "Our thoughts are with the community. We are providing as much support as possible to our customers. If you are a customer that has been affected in Merrimack Valley please call our dedicated customer service line 1-866-388-3239."

Town managers in North Andover and Andover said at a press conference Friday morning that they have published an all-clear list of places in the towns where residents can return to their homes and they will be updating this list throughout the day.

The city of Lawrence tweeted an update at 10 a.m. saying that South Lawrence residents who need access to their homes for medications or pets should report to one of the two shelters in the city and inform a police officer.

Officials also said that residents of the three communities who need non-emergency services should call 2-1-1 for assistance.

Federal investigators were en route to Boston early Friday morning. Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters at National Airport in Washington, D.C. that they will start building teams when they arrive to investigate and determine the exact cause of the fires and explosions.

"Things that we will be looking at will be the design of the pipeline system, any maintenance or upgrades that may have been done. ... We'll look at the emergency response, we'll look at the system safety program of the pipeline operator," he said. "This will be a multidisciplinary investigation. We'll be looking at a number of things."

Officials from the Department of Transportation's pipeline safety unit were already on the ground in the Merrimack Valley yesterday.

In the early morning, all roadways into Lawrence were closed, and there were traffic restrictions within the city. On Rt. 495, the off-ramps for exits 41 and 45 were closed in both directions, and on Rt. 93, the northbound and southbound exit 45 off-ramps to River Road were closed. Schools are also closed Friday in all three communities.

The Haverhill line of the MBTA commuter rail is only operating between North Station and Reading Station, and those who use the Haverhill line north of Reading are encouraged to use the Lowell or Newburyport lines instead this morning. Buses are replacing service on the Lowell line from Haverhill and Bradford stations to Anderson-Woburn.

Lawrence police confirm that throughout the night they have been going door to door, doing well-being checks with the gas company. Mass State Police have set up an incident command post in Lawrence, and fire crews from towns and cities around the state arrived to assist.

In Andover, a shelter for about 150 people was set up at the town's senior center Thursday night, and many people spent the night in their cars in the parking lot outside. As of early Friday morning, town officials had released a statement saying that people who live south of the intersection of Rt. 28 and Salem Street, and west of Beacon Street and Reservation Road could return home, but residents north of Rt. 28 and Salem Street should not return home until further notice.

Many are still waiting to get the green light.

Jenny and Walter Lloyd of Andover, both in their late 80s, spent the night in the shelter after being told they had to evacuate.

"They said there's a gas line explosion, so we just dropped everything and left," said Jenny. "It's the worst day of my life, almost. It's awful."

This story is developing. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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