70 Homes Destroyed and 1 Killed in Massive Gas Explosions in Massachusetts
USA — September 14, 2018
A series of gas explosions that igniting fires in more than 70 homes in three communities north of Boston on Thursday killed a teenager and injured at least 10 others. The massive fires which an official described as "Armageddon" forced entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas.
The three communities affected are Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. In total, they house more than 146,000 residents. Lawrence is the largest of them, with a population of about 80,000, is a majority Latino city.
The dead has been identified as 18 years old Leonel Rondon of Lawrence. He died after a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car. He was rushed to a Boston hospital but pronounced dead there in the evening.
An expert in natural gas distribution opined that “over-pressurization” might have been the reason for the catastrophe.
Mark McDonald, president of the New England Gas Workers Association (NEGWA), said that a failure in the primary and secondary pressure regulators along the gas distribution lines might have caused the explosions.
“This is unprecedented in my history,” Mcdonald said. “It’s quite catastrophic.”
Gas gets transported across the country using transmission lines that can withstand hundreds of thousands of pounds of pressure.
“As gas travels down the pipeline, from the transmission lines to the gas company, to homes, the pressure steadily decreases,” McDonald said.
This lowering of pressure is done for safety reasons.
There are primary and secondary regulators which are in place to ensure that this happens.
According to McDonald, in this case there seems to have been a breakdown in this ever-important chain.
“Once that failure happens gas can fill a home quite quickly,” he added.
“You need a perfect combination of too much gas and an ignition source,” McDonald said.
Anything from lighting a candle, to turning on a light switch to receiving a telephone call can cause a fire with that much gas in the air.
Following the explosions, Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas as well as anyone else who smells gas in the three affected communities to evacuate. This caused some major traffic problems and confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening.
As a precautionary measure, the National Grid cut off power to Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover in an attempt to stave off any more destruction.
Gov. Charlie Baker said that investigation as to what led to the fire is on, but it could take days or maybe even weeks before they find answers.
"This is still very much an active scene," he said. "There will be plenty of time later tonight, tomorrow morning and into the next day to do some of the work around determining exactly what happened and why."
Hours after the explosions, the utility's parent company issued a brief statement that said, "our thoughts are with everyone affected by today's incident. The first priority for our crews at the scene is to ensure the safety of our customers and the community."
By late Thursday all of the fires had been doused. Schools in all three communities have been canceled for Friday, and some schools are being used as shelters for the residents.
In recent years, gas explosions have caused considerable property damages and claimed many lives.
— Seven people were killed in apartment fires in Silver Spring, Maryland in 2016 when a buildup of natural gas triggered an explosion and caused a fire.
— In 2014, a gas explosion in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood killed eight people and injured about 50. Consolidated Edison later agreed to pay $153 million to settle charges after the state's Public Service Commission found that the company violated state safety regulations. A gas leak had been reported earlier.
— Five people were killed in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2011 due to a natural gas-related explosion. The state's largest gas utility was fined by regulators who called the company's safety record "downright alarming."
— 38 homes were destroyed and eight people killed when a Pacific Gas and Electric Gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California in September 2010.