The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 26 miles (40 kilometres) north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border.
Emergency crews are scrambling to douse house fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, north of Boston, and gas and electricity lines are being turned off in an attempt to stop further damage. Gas remained shut off on Friday (Saturday NZT) in most of the area, and the streets were eerily deserted.
- In 2016, a buildup of natural gas triggered an explosion and fire that killed seven people in apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Leonel Rondon, 18, was killed inside a auto in the town of Lawrence when a chimney fell on his vehicle from a house explosion, a spokeswoman with the Essex County District Attorney's office said. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Massachusetts State Police said officers responded to at least 70 reports of fires, explosions and investigations of gas odor as of Thursday evening. Some 400 people spent the night in shelters, and school was cancelled Friday as families waited to return to their homes.
Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield told reporters "it looked like Armageddon, it really did". "One patient has been transported to another hospital", the Lawrence hospital said in a Facebook post. The blazes were reported "across a wide swath of dozens of blocks" in the city of Lawrence and the town of North Andover, according to a tweet from the agency.
People cover their faces to protect themselves from heavy smoke.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement he was "actively monitoring the situation", urging "residents to heed instructions from local officials". Anyone in those towns who has gas service from Columbia Gas should leave their homes until further notice.
Columbia Gas had announced earlier in the day it would be upgrading gas lines in neighbourhoods across MA, including the area where the explosions happened. It was not clear whether work was happening there Thursday, and a spokeswoman did not immediately comment. Authorities are evacuating residents from parts of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. "My first thought was this is a gas explosion".
Guilia Holland, a 35-year-old mechanic in a wheelchair, said she had just gotten off a bus returning home when she saw "a big flash of light" at the house where she had been renting a room for a month. "It's total destruction. I'd be completely devastated". Just a few streets down, he said, homes were burning.
Lawrence police Chief Roy Vasque toldThe Eagle-Tribune, which covers the Merrimack Valley, that he'd "never seen anything like this".
Ra Nam, a Lawrence resident, said he was in his yard when the smoke detector in his basement went off about 4:30pm.
Minutes later, Nam says he heard a loud boom come from his neighbor's house and the ground shook.
An 18-year-old Lawrence man, Leonel Rondon, died when one explosion knocked over a chimney that fell on his vehicle, a spokeswoman at Massachusetts General Hospital said.
Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to be torn apart by blasts.
Solomon, who responded to Lawrence to help, said there are so many fires "you can't even see the sky". Lawrence, the largest of them, is a majority Latino city with a population of about 80,000.
The November 2012 explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts, was caused when a Columbia employee accidentally punctured a gas line while probing for a leak.
Police have confirmed that one person was killed and 13 injured. 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.