ANDOVER, Mass. - Dozens of explosions apparently triggered by a natural gas pipeline rupture rocked three communities near Boston on Thursday, injuring at least six people and prompting the evacuation of hundreds, local officials said.
Live TV images showed firefighters battling blazes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, around 25 miles (40 km)north of the Massachusetts capital. The streets were darkened after utility crews cut off electricity and began shutting down gas service to the area to prevent the ignition of further blasts.
At least three people, including one firefighter, were hurt in Andover, the town said in a statement. Six people were being treated at Lawrence General Hospital, spokeswoman Jill McDonald Halsey said. It was not immediately clear if any of those being treated at that hospital were from Andover.
The Boston affiliate of CBS News reported that two of the six patients at Lawrence hospital were in critical condition.
Fire investigators suspect "over-pressurization of a gas main" led to the series of blasts and fires, Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield said at a news conference.
"This has been an overwhelming event," Mansfield told reporters, saying that fire companies responding to blazes were putting one house fire out only to discover another house on fire as they finished their work.
"This event is not over tonight. This event will probably go on ... probably another week, a week and a half," he said.
Massachusetts State Police said a total of 70 fires, explosions or investigations of gas odour had been reported. Some 50 fire departments responded to the emergency, said John McArdle, fire chief of Plaistow, New Hampshire, which sent a tower ladder and engine crew to the scene.
Local media outlets' Twitter feeds were filled with images of homes in flames or collapsed.
North Andover resident Laurie Williams, 55, said she drove home from work to find police and fire vehicles blocking streets near her home, and learned that three buildings nearby were on fire.
"It was very scary," Williams told Reuters by telephone, describing smoke visible to her on the skyline. "My first thought was this is a gas explosion."
The Columbia Gas company, a unit of NiSource Inc (NI.N), had said earlier on Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions occurred, but it was not immediately clear whether any work was being done in those communities.
"Columbia Gas is investigating what happened on its system today," said Ken Stammen, a spokesman for NiSource.
The US Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) said it was dispatching a team to support the state's emergency response efforts.
"We are asking everybody with gas in their homes to leave their homes until further notice," North Andover town manager Andrew Maylor told one local television station.
State police urged residents served by Columbia Gas to evacuate their homes, saying the utility was cutting pressure to its lines and that it would take "some time" to shut off all service.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said residents in the southern part of the city had been asked to evacuate their homes due to planned power cuts.
Six years ago, Columbia Gas accepted blame for a gas explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts that injured 17 people.
That occurred when a Columbia Gas technician called to investigate a gas odour at a nightclub accidentally punctured a line, the state Department of Public Utilities said in a report.