LAWRENCE, Mass. — Violent explosions and billowing fires tore through three towns north of Boston late Thursday afternoon, killing one person, damaging dozens of houses, forcing thousands of stunned residents to evacuate and plunging much of the region into an eerie darkness.
More than 20 people were injured in the sudden string of explosions caused by gas leaks in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover as blackish-gray clouds of smoke rolled across rooftops and flames shot into the sky.
An 18-year-old man was killed while sitting in a car in the driveway of a home in Lawrence. It was crushed by a chimney that fell from the exploded house, according to the Essex County district attorney’s office.
Across the region, residents returned from work to find their homes burning and neighbors standing outside with no clear sense of what to do. Firefighters and other emergency workers raced from block to block, urging residents to evacuate to shelters that were hastily being opened. Along some blocks, the smell of gas hung in the air, and cellphones buzzed with evacuation warnings.
“It looked like Armageddon, it really did,” Michael Mansfield, the fire chief of Andover, who has worked as a firefighter for almost four decades, told a CBS station in Boston. “There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see plumes of smoke in front of me from the town of Andover. It looked like an absolute war zone.”
The string of explosions, fires and reports of gas odor — at least 70 of them, although officials were still trying to account for all of the damage late Thursday — came suddenly, beginning shortly before 5 p.m., without warning and without an immediate explanation from officials. But natural gas, and the possibility that gas had become overpressurized in a main, was the focus of many local authorities.
A local gas company, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, had announced earlier on Thursday that it was “upgrading natural gas lines in neighborhoods across the state.” Late Thursday, the company issued a statement on its website: “Columbia Gas crews are currently responding to reports of multiple fires in Lawrence. Our thoughts are with everyone affected by today’s incident.”
With three communities that are home to more than 100,000 people involved, the aftermath was chaotic, confusing and shifting. In some neighborhoods, firefighters found themselves putting out one fire, only to find another breaking out next door or down the block. Images from Lawrence showed several housing complexes bursting with flames and thick smoke billowing as firefighters rushed to the scenes.
In the long hours after the fires, sections of the communities turned dark and silent, with power turned off and people told to leave. More than 18,000 customers were without electricity at one point on Thursday night. Long lines of traffic jammed the roads out of some towns. Traffic was crammed, too, near roads to shelters that were opened to those left homeless. Some exits off the major interstate highways were closed, and officials said the area’s schools would be shuttered on Friday.
Some people said they were told to leave only if they smelled gas; others said they were told to leave regardless. Some people said they were left uncertain whether to stay or go, and when they might return. “What we need folks to do is that if it’s happening in your home, you have a funny smell, just evacuate, come out to the street,” Mayor Dan Rivera of Lawrence told WBZ-TV.
Maureen Taylor, 55, had been putting a roast in the oven at her Andover home when something seemed strange: The gas stove made the usual clicking noises, but it would not light.
“I wasn’t getting any gas,” she said. “It was very bizarre.”
A minute or so later, her phone buzzed with an alarm telling her to evacuate.
“I’m very lucky that the stove didn’t go off,” she said.
As Ms. Taylor and two neighbors drove to a senior center for shelter, she saw two homes in her neighborhood burning. Officers were gathered on the streets. At the senior center, Ms. Taylor said she was surrounded by dozens of other people who wondered what would come next.
“They’re worried about getting home,” she said. “They’re worried about their animals. Because really we were just given a few minutes to evacuate, and we keep hearing new information about whether we’re going to go back tonight or not.”
As the night wore on, leaders of the three towns suggested that residents who had been evacuated needed to stay away — at least for now. No timeline for cleanup and safety checks was set, they said, and no one had a sense of how much damage had been done.
Mr. Rivera said the affected properties in Lawrence were south of the Merrimack River. He warned people not to return to their homes on Thursday evening, and that it may take days to ensure that homes are safe to enter.
“If you are out of the house, stay away from your properties until we have made it safe for everyone,” Mr. Rivera said. “If you have not evacuated, you have just got to go. Trust us when we tell you that if you stay in your home, you will be at risk.”
Gov. Charlie Baker said public safety officers and government officials are focused on trying to make sure that people are safe and that communities make it through the night safely, despite the loss of power and lingering fears over gas. Later, he said, he will turn his attention to what caused the explosion.
“We’ll get to the question about what happened,” he said.
Katharine Q. Seelye reported from Lawrence, Mass.; Farah Stockman from Cambridge, Mass.; Jacey Fortin from New York; and Monica Davey from Chicago. Andrew R. Chow and Julia Jacobs contributed reporting from New York.