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Officials work to pinpoint cause of 'Armageddon'-like blasts in three Massachusetts towns

Officials work to pinpoint cause of 'Armageddon'-like blasts in three Massachusetts towns
Columbia Gas employees shut off the gas in an Andover, Mass., home Friday. Multiple houses were damaged the day before from explosions triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (Winslow Townson / Associated Press)

Investigators worked Friday to pinpoint the cause of a series of dramatic natural gas explosions that killed a young man who had just gotten his driver's license and was sitting in his car, 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. Most were still waiting — shaken and exhausted — to be allowed to return to their homes.

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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 neighborhoods 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 neighborhoods 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. Some 400 people spent the night in shelters, and school was canceled 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.

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."

The three communities house 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.

"It looked like Armageddon, it really did," said Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield. "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.

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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 taking place there Thursday.

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