‘Like a war zone’: 1 dead, several injured after gas explosions rock Merrimack Valley

LAWRENCE, MASS. (WHDH) - A wave of gas explosions and fires tore through neighborhoods in three Merrimack Valley communities Thursday night, forcing thousands of residents from their homes, leaving dozens injured and at least one man dead.

At the height of the disaster, Michael Rivera, who narrowly escaped a house fire, said his city “looked like a war zone.”

Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence were rocked by gas explosions and several fires around 5 p.m., drawing emergency responders from across the region to battle the between 60 and 80 fires that broke out almost simultaneously due to a situation involving the communities’ gas lines.

Thousands of residents were forced from their homes and into the street as city officials implored residents to evacuate the area immediately.

More than 8,000 homes were impacted, all of which will need to be inspected before residents can return.

Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, was killed after a house explosion sent a chimney falling onto his car, according to the Essex District Attorney’s Office.

Dozens of others were injured.

Lawrence General Hospital treated 13 patients, including Rondon before he was flown to a Boston hospital where he later passed away.

Patients with minor injuries were treated and released, hospital officials said. One remains in serious condition.

“Employees of Lawrence General have demonstrated their dedication and compassion during this incident,” Lawrence General Hospital President and Chief Executive Officer Dianne Anderson said. “The event began after our shift change but many staff returned to the hospital to help care for those who were brought in and to prepare for additional patients who might be in need.”

As the sun rose Friday, residents looked over damaged homes that were either blasted by explosions or consumed by flames.

“Oh, massive explosion,” said Matthew Van Dyke, who witnessed one of the blasts.

“I saw a fire up the street, so I ran up that way, he recalled. “I don’t know, it’s insane.”

RELATED: Home of Lawrence police officer destroyed in Merrimack Valley gas fire

Teams of firefighters, police, and gas company workers were out in force overnight, shutting off gas to the 8,000 impacted homes. That effort continued Friday.

Gov. Charlie Baker urged people to not touch their gas gauges and instead let the utility company handle it.

“It’s very important that people do not try to turn on their own gas,” he said. “Please wait for the utilities.”

The incident forced National Grid to cut power to all three communities, leaving an estimated 18,000 people in the dark.

As many families seek refuge in temporary shelters, officials are warning that it could be at least another day until many of them are allowed to return to their homes.

“The issue is there could still be a gas leak in your home, and the danger is that it’s an invisible thing,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said Thursday night. “You can’t see it, and in some cases you won’t be able to smell it. And God forbid you go to sleep and not wake up tomorrow.”

RELATED: Ramps closed, commuter rail impacted in wake of Merrimack Valley explosions

In a statement, Columbia Gas said crews will be working around the clock to turn off the gas at affected homes and conduct safety inspections.

“What happened in the Merrimack Valley yesterday was a tragic incident. We are saddened to learn of the death of a young man as a result of these events,” the statement read. “Our thoughts and continued support are with those who have been injured and affected. 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.”

Fire crews from around Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire worked together Thursday to extinguish the dozens of fires that broke out throughout the afternoon and evening.

Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield described the harrowing scene as, “Armageddon.”

The investigation into the cause of the explosions and fires remains active and ongoing.

Flanked by community leaders from Lawrence, Andover and North Andover Thursday night, Baker vowed, “we’ll work with the federal government and others to investigate how this occurred and hold the appropriate parties responsible for their actions.”

He also asked state residents to keep the family members of all the injured in their prayers, saying, “This has been an incredibly difficult day for everyone. I ask everyone to think of the family of Leonel Rodon who lost a loved one today, and to pray for everyone who has been injured.”

This is a developing story; stay with 7News on-air and online for the latest developments.

(Copyright (c) 2019 Sunbeam Television. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)