Firefighters inspect a home in North Andover after gas explosions in three communities Thursday night. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
LAWRENCE (WBZ-AM) -- The communities of Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence are picking up the pieces, after a series of horrific gas explosions and fires left one dead, several injured, and thousands evacuated from their homes.
Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency Director Kurt Schwartz said emergency crews responded to between 60 and 80 fires across the three communities Thursday - as well as three explosions within a very short time frame.
In a press conference Sunday morning, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker gave the all-clear for Merrimack Valley residents to return home. The Governor said, as of 6:30 a.m. Sunday, all areas effected by Thursday's gas explosions have been cleared. However, he did warn returning residents that if they see a damaged gas appliance or smell gas when they get home to get out and call 911 and emphasized that residents without gas should not turn on it back on themselves.
Governor Baker also announced a recovery center will be opening at 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon in Lawrence at the existing Red Cross shelter to aid those who have lost their home and property.
Governor Charlie Baker has declared a state of emergency for the three affected communities in the Merrimack Valley, saying he is not satisfied by the recovery efforts made by Columbia Gas, in response a series of horrific gas explosions Friday night. Eversource is now in charge of recovery efforts.
"I certainly believe, at this point, it's in the best interest of the people of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover for us to get a new team leading this effort, and for us to be in a position to do that through the declaration of an emergency," Baker said.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera on Friday said that Columbia's communications with local authorities have been poor and that the company is "hiding from the problem."
"Neighbors who watched their houses blown up next to them - fires next to them - have no understanding of why that happened, or who's doing what to fix it, want to know what we're doing about it," Rivera said. "This is real people with real issues."
President Steve Bryant of Columbia Gas says "we're sorry," and says the company is opening a claims center at the Lawrence Public Library. They have developed a claims hotline at +1-800-590-5571. He says Federal authorities will investigate the cause of the explosions and fires.
"Our focus today and in the coming days is to support the Merrimack Valley, and ensure the safety of the communities we serve," Bryant said. "We will support the NTSB and other parties with all the resources and information they need to complete their investigation. From this point forward, they will be the primary source of information on the investigation."
Eversource officials say it could take weeks to fully-restore gas service in the Merrimack Valley area.
Leo Rondon, 18, of Lawrence was killed after a chimney toppled by a home explosion crashed onto the car he was sitting in. He was a junior and received his driver's license just a few hours before the gas incident.
"The Lawrence schools community is deeply saddened by the loss of one of its members... in the series of gas-related accidents that struck multiple Merrimack Valley communities yesterday," Lawrence Public Schools and Phoenix Charter Academy said of Rondon, in a statement.
Over a dozen others remained hospitalized.
As day broke Friday, there was fog around the Merrimack Valley towns that also smelled of smoke in some areas. Police were escorting gas and fire crews around, as over 18,000 customers in the area were without power, according to MEMA's outage map.
Andover Police said around 9 a.m. that power would be out for residents for at least another 24 hours.
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National Transportation Safety Board officials have arrived and are opening an investigation. The cause of the explosions was not yet clear.
The FBI has also sent special agents to assess the situation--which is normal protocol for an incident of this size.
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Fire crews from surrounding communities were still sending help, with crews from Leicester, Uxbridge, Worcester, Auburn, and East Brookfield among those pulling into the staging area in Lawrence Friday morning.
Columbia Gas said they would need to visit each of the 8,600 customers affected to shut off each gas meter and conduct a safety inspection--and officials said around 11:30 a.m. that they had checked about half of those customers. Columbia warned residents to NOT try to turn their gas back on themselves.
"Our thoughts are with the community and everyone impacted by yesterday’s tragic incident," Columbia said Friday morning in a statement. "We are focused on providing as much support as possible to our customers, residents and communities. We are grateful for the community’s patience, as well as the tremendous support we have received from our first responder and law enforcement partners."
They said that if a customer smells an odor of natural gas, they should leave immediately, get to a safe place, and call 911 or their emergency number at 1-800-525-8222. The customer should NOT turn off the gas to their home or appliancees, try to find the leak themselves, or open windows and doors to try to ventilate. The company also reminded customers not to light a match or candle, or operate anything that could create a spark--including home or cell phones, lights, appliances, flashlights, power tools, etc.
The restoration process was expected to take several days or longer.
"We expect this will be an extended restoration effort, and we will work tirelessly to restore service to the affected customers," the company said.
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Asked about the company's response Thursday night, Gov. Charlie Baker said, "I would say that the response so far has been adequate, but there's a lot more work that's left to be done."
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said South Lawrence residents should not return to their homes.
Lawrence resident John Tomaselli told WBZ-TV the community was coming together in the face of the tragedy.
"Neighbors have been great, people have been coming by," he said. "It's just a wait game now, I guess."
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera spoke to reporters late Thursday night, and said the town would pull together.
"Lawrence is a very resilient community," he said. "We're gonna be OK. Everybody's gonna band together, get back to work, and at the end of the day, we'll get over this one."
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Red Cross shelters were operating at the Arlington School and the Parthum School in Lawrence, at North Andover High School, and at the Cormier Youth Center in Andover. The shelters accomodate pets. Anyone seeking more info about shelters can call 774-204-5071.
Congressman Seth Moulton visited one of the shelters last night, and spoke to reporters about what he saw there.
"Parts of this community right now look like a war zone," Moulton said. "Homes literally exploding, and people don't even know exactly why. But when you come in here to the shelter, you see the best of the American spirit. All the folks in here, they're keeping their heads up. They're positive, they're looking out for one another, they're supporting each other. Volunteers are doing extraordinary work--I was just talking to a woman who showed up out of the blue to donate a bunch of food. So you see the best of America coming through, but this should never have happened in the first place."
Several Route 495 off-ramps in the area remained closed Friday morning, and all roadways into Lawrence were closed.
Public schools in all three communities are closed Friday, as is the Bellesini Academy private school in Lawrence. State offices in the three towns were closed as well, and non-emergency executive branch employees were told not to report to work.
A handful of hotels are offering rooms to people displaced in the Merrimack Valley, including the Salem Waterfront Hotel--and in Boston at the Yotel Seaport Hotel.
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Trains on the MBTA's Haverhill Commuter Rail line will operate only between Reading and North Station Friday. The MBTA is recommending the Lowell or Newburyport lines as alternatives. Buses will run from Haverhill and Bradford to Anderson/Woburn for inbound service on the Lowell line.