LAWRENCE, Mass. – The governor of Massachusetts Friday declared a state of emergency in three suburban Boston communities devastated by gas line explosions and fires that destroyed more than 70 homes and displaced 8,500 residents.

An 18-year-old man was killed in the Thursday afternoon disaster when a brick chimney from an exploding home fell on his car while he was inside the vehicle. At least 25 other residents were injured.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency order put Eversource utility in charge of the recovery effort because of frustration with Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, the company that serves homes in the affected neighborhoods.

Columbia is a subsidiary of Indiana-based NiSource, Inc. Eversource provides gas to the majority of Massachusetts homes and businesses.

“The follow-through just wasn’t there,” said Baker of Columbia Gas. “We need to get on with this. Hopefully, it will lead to a better game on the ground.”

The governor said Columbia Gas would continue to assist federal, state and local officials in their investigation and efforts to return displaced residents to their homes as promptly as possible.

Safety crews of gas technicians, firefighters and law enforcement officers spent Friday going house to house in the neighborhoods of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, checking for undetected gas leaks and making sure gas meters were shut off.

Officials said over-pressurized distribution lines apparently caused gas to leak into homes. They said the explosions and fires were likely set off by pilot lights on water heaters and stoves and light switches. Residents reported a strong smell of gas in the air preceding the explosions and fires.  

The source of the over-pressurized lines had not been determined, but officials said it could have been a malfunction of equipment that lowers the pressure of gas in distribution lines so it can be used in homes. Columbia Gas had been upgrading aged gas lines in the communities.

Local authorities allowed 3,500 residents whose homes were not destroyed to return to them, with the directive to not turn on their gas feed. That left 5,000 people still displaced, many of them staying in shelters set up in schools, senior centers and other public buildings.

More than 18,000 homes and businesses remained without electricity as a safety measure to prevent further explosions in buildings served by Columbia Gas. Safety officials estimated it could be two to three days before power is completely restored.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera lambasted Columbia Gas for lack of leadership, communication and follow-up. He insisted on three things from the utility: details of what happened, why it happened and more help in clearing buildings of gas.

“We are at hour 23 and none of this is clear to anyone,” he told a news conference. “It seems like there’s no one is in charge, like they (Columbia Gas) are in the weeds, and they’ve never seen this before.”

The mayor added: “We need Columbia Gas in this effort. It is their pipes.”

In North Andover, residents gathered on main street in search of answers. Their primary concern: When will it be safe to return to their homes and businesses?

Columbia Gas representatives present did not answer that question, leading to crowd frustration.

“I get that you are in a terrible situation, but give us something,” Michael Foresta, owner of a Main Street business, pleaded.

An angry resident who attended the event with his young son told the Columbia Gas representatives, “You keep walking away from us, but we can’t walk away.”

In a statement Friday, the gas company said crews needed to visit “each of the 8,600 affected customers to shut off each gas meter and conduct a safety inspection. More than 500 resources from several affiliated Columbia Gas companies and other utilities are currently mobilizing to provide assistance.”

The statement described as “tragic” the chaos and fear rom the explosions and fires. “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.”

But Congressman Seth Moulton questioned the company’s outreach effort. He said he tried to call the president of Columbia Gas multiple times in the wake of the disaster and never got a response.

Moulton said he had spoken with Howard “Skip” Elliott, chief of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, who said his engineers told him the explosions sounded “exactly like an incident in Chicago in 1992” when an over-pressurized gas distribution line set off a series of explosions and fires there.

Elliott dispatched several investigators from his agency to the scene to assist in the inquiry about what happened and why, a mechanical failure or human error.  

Kurt Schwartz, director of the state emergency management agency, said the investigation will focus on the gas distribution network and the origin of excessive pressure being fed to pipe lines to the homes in the communities.

Details for this story were provided by The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

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