Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at a Lawrence press conference in the wake of Thursday’s explosions and fires across the Merrimack Valley. (Jay Saulnier photograph for WHAV News)
The gas-related fires and explosions that rocked three Merrimack Valley communities Thursday night have claimed the life of an 18-year-old Lawrence man.
Leonel Rondon, of 16 Chestnut St., Lawrence, was pronounced dead at Massachusetts General Hospital around 8:30, Tuesday night. “Rondon was inside a car near 35 Chickering Road in Lawrence when a chimney from a house explosion fell on the car,” said Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokeswoman for Essex County District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett.
What’s being called an over-pressurized Columbia Gas line caused what some city officials call an “Armageddon-like” scenario in the communities of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence Thursday afternoon. Gov. Charlie Baker vowed to focus on public safety—not blame—in the wake of the disaster.
Haverhill’s fire and police departments were among the dozens of agencies dispatched to the area for mutual aid.
Haverhill Police Chief Alan DeNaro dispatched officers to the affected neighborhood.
“We went up as a precaution and had them shut down the lines on that block—that were Columbia Gas. I think there were two or three houses where nobody was home and we left notes for those homes,” he said.
DeNaro was in North Andover as Haverhill Police offer backup resources. He told WHAV what Haverhill’s role is. “I have a captain stationed up there and I have some officers up there to assist in anyway necessary—whether it be with traffic direction or assistance at a fire scene. We’re just there offering our assistance.”
The chief added Haverhill is on standby in case the town needs an additional shelter. He is also offering the department’s incident command vehicle to North Andover Police Chief Charles Gray.
North Andover Town Manager Andrew W. Maylor explained the situation there during a news conference with Gov. Charlie Baker and Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and other officials. “To date, we have approximately 12 to 14 houses that were directly impacted by the events.”
During the press conference from Lawrence, Baker praised local law enforcement agencies for their response as day turned to night and several communities cut power as a precaution. As WHAV previously reported, Columbia Gas services 20 homes on Haverhill’s Bradford Street, on the North Andover town line, and Mayor James J. Fiorentini ordered an emergency shutdown of service to all addresses out of an abundance of caution.
In a statement, Columbia Gas said the utility company is prioritizing safety for customers and crews. Columbia is currently performing what they call “safety checks” on the system. Fires are largely extinguished, Baker said, but said crews remain on scene to put out any remaining hot spots. He explained why power has been shut off in the affected areas.
“The depressurization of the gas lines—which led to the cutting of the power—that process is well underway at this point,” Baker said.
The town of Andover alone put out 35 fires—18 of them concurrently—and reported three injuries. A firefighter is said to be among those injured. Power has been fully shut down in the town as a precaution.
Rivera urged anyone remaining south of the Merrimack River to evacuate.
“Be clear that things that happened in Lawrence today happened south of the river. So, if you live south of the river, you should have evacuated. If you live north of the river, right now, there have not been any incidents despite that you may smell gas or heard of something different. There are no issues north of the river,” the mayor said.
Holy Family Hospital confirmed to WHAV that their facilities in Haverhill and Methuen have seen 10 patients through the emergency department. All are described as stable or being discharged.