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'Armageddon-like blasts'

Investigators worked Friday to pinpoint the cause of a series of dramatic natural gas explosions that killed a teenager who had just gotten his driver's licence and was sitting in his car, injured at least 25 others and left dozens of homes in smouldering 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. Most were still waiting, shaken and exhausted, to be allowed to return to their homes.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to help investigate, saying pipelines are within its jurisdiction.

The rapid-fire series of gas explosions that one official described as "Armageddon" ignited fires in 60 to 80 homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, forcing entire neighbourhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas and electricity.

Gas and electricity remained shut off Friday in most of the area, and entire neighbourhoods 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.

Rondon, a musician who went by the name DJ Blaze, had just gotten his driver's license, grieving friends and relatives told The Boston Globe. "It's crazy how this happened," said a friend, Cassandra Carrion.

The state Registry of Motor Vehicles said Rondon had been issued his driver's license earlier Thursday.

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 cancelled Friday as families waited to return to their homes.

Gov. Charlie Baker said 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.

Columbia Gas was sued in 2014 after a strip club was destroyed in a natural gas explosion two years earlier.

The November 2012 explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts, was caused when a Columbia employee accidentally punctured a gas line while probing for a leak. The blast levelled the Scores Gentleman's Club, injuring about 20 people and damaging dozens of other buildings. The club owner and the gas company eventually settled the case.

John Fluegge 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, 58, called the situation "confusing more than frightening."

"You don't know if your house is going to go up or your apartment," he said. "It happened all of a sudden, no one knew how it started and everything." His apartment was not damaged but he has still not been allowed to return because there is no power.

The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 26 miles (40 kilometres) 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.

Hours earlier, Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield described a starkly different situation.

"It looked like Armageddon, it really did," he told reporters. "There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see pillars of smoke in front of me from the town of Andover."

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 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 return calls seeking comment.

Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to be torn apart by blasts.

Joseph Solomon, the police chief in nearby Methuen, said 20 to 25 homes were on fire in Lawrence when he responded to help. He said there are so many fires "you can't even see the sky."



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