Dozens of explosions, apparently triggered by a natural gas pipeline rupture, rocked three communities near Boston on Thursday, killing at least one person, injuring 12, officials said.
The blasts left dozens of homes and other buildings demolished or engulfed in flames as firefighters from some 50 departments raced for hours from one blaze to another and utility crews rushed to shut off gas and electricity in the area to prevent further ignitions.
Police drove up and down streets with bull horns telling residents to vacate their homes immediately.
Fire investigators suspected “over-pressurisation of a gas main” belonging to Columbia Gas of Massachusetts led to the series of explosions and fires, Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield told a news conference.
Columbia Gas, a unit of the utility giant NiSource Inc (NI.N), announced earlier on Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions occurred.
However, it was not immediately known whether any work was being done in those communities at the time, reports Reuters.
“Columbia Gas is investigating what happened on its system today,” NiSource spokesman Ken Stammen said.
The US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said it was sending a team to support the state’s emergency response efforts.
The former head of the agency, Brigham McCown, called the series of gas explosions “unprecedented, at least in recent memory.”
“I can’t think of a series of natural gas-related incidents like this,” McCown, who led PHMSA under President George W. Bush, told Reuters by telephone.
“We have had similar issues on a much smaller scale,” McCown said.
He said the National Transportation Safety Board was also sending a team headed by its chairman, Robert Sumwalt, to investigate the disaster.
Live TV images showed firefighters battling blazes in the former mill towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, about 25 miles (40 km) north of the Massachusetts capital.
The streets were darkened after nightfall with power cut off to the area as a precaution.
Massachusetts State Police said a total of 70 fires, explosions or investigations of gas odor had been reported.