Investigators were working Friday to pinpoint the cause of a series of dramatic natural-gas explosions that killed a teenager, injured at least 25 others and left dozens of homes in smoldering ruins.
Authorities said an estimated 8,000 people were displaced at the height of Thursday’s post-explosion chaos in three towns north of Boston that were rocked by the disaster.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to help investigate, saying pipelines are within its jurisdiction.
The rapid-fire series of gas explosions ignited fires in 60 to 80 homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas and electricity. Gas remained shut off Friday in most of the area, and the streets were eerily deserted.
Authorities said Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died after a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car. He was rushed to a Boston hospital and pronounced dead there Thursday evening.
Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in the three communities to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening. Some 400 people spent the night in shelters, and school was canceled Friday as families waited to return to their homes.
John Fluegge, 58, said he came home Thursday to find a note on the door of his apartment building saying everyone had to leave. A police officer directed him to North Andover’s high school, where he slept on a cot.
Fuegge called the situation “confusing more than frightening.”
“You don’t know if your house is going to go up,” he said. “It happened all of a sudden, no one knew how it started.” His apartment was not damaged, but he has still not been allowed to return because there is no power.
Gov. Charlie Baker said that state and local authorities were investigating but that it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers, acknowledging the “massive inconvenience” for those displaced by the explosions. He said hundreds of gas technicians were going house to house to ensure each was safe.
The three communities have more than 146,000 residents about 26 miles north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border. Lawrence, the largest of them, is a majority Latino city with a population of about 80,000.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera reassured immigrants who might not be living in his city legally that they had nothing to fear.
“Do not be afraid. Stay in the light. We will support you and your family,” Rivera said at a news conference Friday, speaking in English and Spanish. “Lawrence is one community.”
Authorities said all of the fires had been extinguished overnight and the situation was stabilizing.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized but said investigators were still examining what happened.
Columbia had announced earlier Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods 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 return calls seeking comment.