“It looked like Armageddon, it really did. There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me, I could see plumes of smoke in front of me within the Town…it just looked like an absolute war zone.”Andover Fire Rescue Chief Michael Mansfield
Minutes after a Columbia Gas of Massachusetts crew made a fatal error while replacing gas lines on Sept. 13, 2018, natural gas started building up in homes and businesses in Andover, Lawrence and North Andover. Beginning at 4:15 p.m., residents of the municipalities began reporting fires and explosions.
“These are all coming in as reported basement fires,” a dispatcher said in a recording of police and fire scanner transmissions on that day. “I have something going on here with over-pressurization.”
At one point, 18 fires were burning simultaneously, and Andover Fire Rescue struck a maximum, 10-alarm response. Fire crews from as far away as Boston and Manchester, NH helped respond to more than 80 fires throughout the evening, with the last being knocked down around 6:45 p.m. Portions of Interstates 93 and 495 were closed, and Route 125 was shifted to one-way traffic for fleeing residents.
“This is crazy,” the dispatcher said.
By that time, an 18-year-old Lawrence man was dead and 30,000 people had been evacuated. It would be three days before electricity came back on in much of the area, weeks before gas service was fully restored, and months before hundreds of people could return to their homes. Estimates put the total damage at more than $1 billion and, five years later, the impact is still resonating.
A week after the explosions, Dr. Grace Chen, a therapist in Andover, wrote about leaving her office and realizing the severity of the situation when she saw ten police cars and helicopters overhead. Her 10-minute drive home took two hours.
Interstate 93 “was like a big parking lot while everyone tried to get out of the town. I sat in the car and just felt a sense of disbelief,” Chen wrote. “All I can think was how fortunate I was to have a destination to drive to and to have someone to give me a shelter.”
In the year after the gas explosion, Columbia Gas parent company NiSource settled multiple class action lawsuits for $143 million, including $80 million for the affected communities. In February 2020, Columbia Gas pleaded guilty to criminal charges for violating federal pipeline safety laws and agreed to sell its Massachusetts gas operations to Eversource Energy. The company was fined $53 million when it was sentenced in June 2020.
Top photo: The house on Chickering Road in Lawrence where 18-year-old Leonel Rondon was killed on Sept. 13, 2018. Rondon was sitting in the car parked in the driveway when the house exploded during the Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions, toppling the chimney onto the car. (Dave Copeland/Andover News).