LAWRENCE, Mass. – Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency Friday for three communities rocked by fires and explosions from natural gas leaks and put a different utility company in charge of restoring gas service to more than 8,000 affected residents.
Columbia Gas said Friday it was working to ensure the lines were safe, requiring technicians to shut off gas meters and conduct safety inspections, before residents can return.
But as anger from residents and elected officials mounted Friday, the governor invoked a provision of state law that allows him to take management of the disaster away from the local utility. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities turned the effort over to Eversource, a company that serves electric and gas customers throughout New England.
William Akley, president of gas operations for Eversource, said displaced residents might be able to return to their homes in the next few days, but it could take weeks to restore the entire power system.
Over-pressurized gas lines – coupled with an older gas line infrastructure that Columbia Gas had just announced plans to upgrade earlier Thursday – are the suspected cause of the explosions, according to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which has jurisdiction over pipeline accidents, is investigating. Baker said it could take investigators weeks to turn up answers.
The blasts ignited fires that leveled dozens of homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, injuring at least 25 people and killing 18-year-old Leonel Rondon.
The aspiring musician had just earned his driver's license. He was sitting in his car when a chimney fell on top of it.
“It’s crazy how this happened,” his friend, Cassandra Carrion, told The Boston Globe.
The chaos forced more than 8,000 people from their homes, snarling traffic and creating widespread confusion. Most were still waiting to return to their homes Friday.
Columbia Gas President Stephen Bryant said it was difficult to gain access to every evacuated building.
“We’ve advanced this as rapidly as it could possibly be advanced," he said Friday. "We will be very careful, very methodical about restoring service.”
But Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said the utility was slow to respond from the very beginning.
"Since we first got word of this incident, the least informed and last to act has been Columbia Gas," he said.
Sen. Ed Markey, who sits on the committee with jurisdiction over pipeline safety, called the gas company's first response to the emergency – a tweet four hours after the initial blasts – "totally unacceptable."
Columbia Gas is a subsidiary of Indiana-based NiSource. In 2014, a Columbia Gas pipeline explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts, 100 miles from Lawrence, injured 21 and destroyed a strip club.
In 2015, a leak from a natural gas service line in Upper Arlington, Ohio, fueled an explosion and fire that caused $9 million in damage.
And in 2012, an interstate natural gas pipeline operated by Columbia Gas Transmission, a NiSource subsidiary at the time, exploded in Sissonville, West Virginia, destroying three homes in the sparsely populated area.
Columbia Gas has some of the oldest and most leak-prone gas pipes in the nation. It reported 471 miles of cast-iron and wrought-iron gas distribution lines in 2017, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal data.
Residents asked why the company wasn't better prepared.
Ed Brennan spent the night at a hotel in nearby Haverhill with his wife and mother. The Lawrence man, who works in communications at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said he was surprised that Columbia Gas didn't have a plan in place to communicate with customers.
“Everyone has gas lines, and when this kind of thing happens, when there are dozens of things happening all over the area, it feels like Russian roulette: ‘Is my house going to be OK?’ " he said.
"I’m pretty confident when they give us the all clear to go home, it will be OK. But I’ll definitely be a little on edge for the first few days.”
Betsy Santiago was trying to get back home to retrieve medication for herself and her mother. She was still wearing the clothes in which she fled her house Thursday evening.
“We had to leave quickly,” she said at an American Red Cross shelter. "I couldn’t take anything.”
Amid the confusion and traffic, Santiago said, it took 5½ hours to get to her sister's home.
“The first thing I thought to myself – it was like a terrorist attack. It was horrible.”
Lawrence, an old mill town 30 miles north of Boston in the Merrimack Valley, has a faded charm, with a historic, brick-paved downtown surrounded by frame houses mixed with green spaces, small shops and churches. It has attracted working-class immigrants throughout its history and is now 77 percent Hispanic.
The Lawrence mayor reassured immigrants who might not be living in the city legally that they should have no fear of seeking help.
“Do not be afraid. Stay in the light. We will support you and your family,” he said in English and Spanish at a news conference Friday. “Lawrence is one community.”
Residents said they hadn't been told when they can return home. Some said they didn't know what they would find.
Rivera said the roughly 4,000 residents who live south of the Merrimack River will remain out of their homes for the time being.
“We’re keeping out," he said. "We have to go house to house. ... The goal here is safe and secure. Not fast."
Betty Ann Joseph was home alone Thursday night when she heard a loud boom. She thought a car ran into the house.
“It’s something like you see in the movies,” she said. “You see the fires popping up. I didn’t know it was a chain reaction."
She fled with her dog and nothing else.
“I’m praying the house is there,” she said. “I know my blood pressure is up. It’s the not knowing.”
But on the day that Hurricane Florence slammed into the Carolinas, she said she was thankful that she wasn’t dealing with a different sort of disaster.
“Everywhere has its uncertainty,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Thank God I’m not in the Carolinas.' "
Gregory Korte contributed from McLean, Virginia, and Kevin McCoy from New York. Contributing: The Associated Press