Massachusetts: One dead and 12 hurt after 70 homes explode

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AN 18-YEAR-old man was killed and at least 12 others injured after a gas explosion sparked 70 blasts causing homes to go up in flames in Massachusetts last night.

Authorities said Leonel Rondon died after a chimney toppled by an exploding house fell on his car as blasts ripped through three neighbourhoods near Boston.

The teenager was taken to hospital but pronounced dead at 8.30pm, while 12 patients are being treated for injuries ranging from smoke inhalation to blast trauma.

One person is reportedly in a critical condition, and two of the victims are believed to be firefighters.

Thousands of residents were forced to flee their homes as crews scrambled to douse the flames and shut off gas and electric lines to prevent any further damage.

Massachusetts State Police say officers were sent to Lawrence, Andover and North Andover shortly after reports of the first blast at around 5pm (10pm BST).

Gov. Charlie Baker said state and local authorities are investigating but that it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers.

He said: "This is still very much an active scene. There will be plenty of time later tonight, tomorrow morning and into the next day to do some of the work around determining exactly what happened and why."

Hours after the explosions, the utility's parent company issued a brief statement saying its crews were still performing safety checks in the area.

Indiana-based NiSource said in a statement: "Our thoughts are with everyone affected by today's incident. The first priority for our crews at the scene is to ensure the safety of our customers and the community."

Baker previously said authorities hadn't heard directly from Columbia Gas, but later called the company's response "adequate."

All of the fires had been doused late last night but many areas remained silent and dark after residents fled and after power companies cut electricity to prevent further fires.

Schools in all three communities were cancelled for Friday, and some schools were being used as shelters for residents.

Officials had cut power in the area and the streets were pitch black, save for emergency vehicle lights.

Bruce Razin, who was among the evacuees and saw a neighbours house destroyed said: "I couldn't imagine if that was my house.

"It's total destruction. I'd be completely devastated."

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurised but said investigators were still examining what happened.

The Columbia Gas company announced earlier on Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighbourhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions happened.

It was not clear whether work was happening there at the time, and a spokeswoman did not immediately comment.

Officers warned Columbia Gas customers in the area to evacuate their homes immediately while the company "despressurises" lines, which it expects will take some time.

The town of 35,000 residents is about 26 miles north of Boston near the New Hampshire border.

In neighbouring North Andover, town Selectman Phil Decologero said that his entire neighbourhood had gathered in the street, afraid to enter homes.

He said: "It's definitely a scary situation at the moment. It's pretty severe."

He warned anyone with concerns to leave their houses and head to North Andover High School, which is being set up as a gathering point.

Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to be torn apart by blasts.

At one, the upper portion of a brick chimney crushed an SUV parked in the driveway.

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.

Mayor Dan Rivera said: "Lawrence is a very resilient community. We're going to get through this together."

Gas explosions have claimed lives and destroyed property around the US in recent years.

A buildup of natural gas triggered an explosion and fire that killed seven people in apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2016.

In 2014, a gas explosion in New York City's East Harlem neighbourhood killed eight people and injured about 50.

Consolidated Edison later agreed to pay $153 million to settle charges after the state's Public Service Commission found it had violated state safety regulations. A gas leak had been reported before that blast.

A 2011 natural gas explosion killed five people in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and that state's largest gas utility was fined by regulators who called the company's safety record "downright alarming."

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