A series of gas explosions injured at least six people and ignited fires in at least 39 homes in three communities north of Boston on Thursday, forcing entire neighbourhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight fires and turn off gas and electric lines to prevent further damage.
Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover to evacuate Thursday afternoon, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening.
Later, the evacuation order was expanded to include all residents of South Lawrence, due to a related power shutdown.
A man whose neighborhood was among dozens that erupted in fire says he ran into his basement to find that the room was glowing. Lawrence resident Ra Nam says he was in his yard when the smoke detector in his basement went off around 4:30 p.m. ET Thursday.
When he ran downstairs and saw the boiler on fire, he quickly grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out. Minutes later, Nam said he heard a loud boom from his neighbour's house and the ground shook. Nam said a woman and two kids had made it out of the house but the basement was on fire.
Lawrence resident Bruce Razin was among the evacuees standing outside, near the city's high school, trying to decide what to do next late on Thursday.
Officials had cut power in the area and the streets were pitch black, save for emergency vehicle lights. Razin said he arrived just as residents were being relocated, and immediately saw the house two doors down was levelled from an explosion.
"I couldn't imagine if that was my house," said Razin, who purchased his home nearly two years ago. "It's total destruction. I'd be completely devastated."
'You can't even see the sky'
Joseph Solomon, the police chief in nearby Methuen, who responded to a call for help from Lawrence, said there are so many fires "you can't even see the sky."
Lawrence General Hospital says it has treated six victims with fire-related injuries but did not immediately release their conditions or the severity of the injuries.
The town of Andover put out a statement saying there were three injuries there. It was not immediately apparent whether those injured were different from the six victims at Lawrence General Hospital.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized, but officials who responded to the area were still investigating the cause. State officials said Columbia Gas was working to ease pressure on gas lines following the fires.
Columbia had said earlier in the day it would be upgrading gas lines in neighbourhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions happened. It was not clear whether work was happening there Thursday, and a spokeswoman did not immediately return calls.
A spokeswoman from Columbia Gas did not immediately comment.
Town officials in Andover are advising all residents and businesses to evacuate and to shut off their gas, if they know how to safely. The town of 35,000 residents is about 40 kilometres north of Boston near the New Hampshire border.
In neighbouring North Andover, town official Phil Decologero said that his entire neighbourhood had gathered in the street, afraid to enter homes. He warned anyone with concerns to leave their houses and head to North Andover High School, which is being set up as a gathering point.
"It's definitely a scary situation at the moment," he said. "It's pretty severe."
Entire neighbourhoods were being evacuated in Lawrence. City Councillor Marc Laplante said authorities were shutting off electric power and urging residents in the Colonial Heights area to head to Parthum elementary and middle schools.
"People need to get out of this area safely, and it's really difficult because the traffic right now is horrendous," he said.