Gas explosions drive thousands out of homes in Boston suburbs

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Mass evacuations from U.S. towns north of Boston were underway Thursday after dozens of fires and suspected gas explosions erupted, police said, leaving at least 10 residents injured, one critically.

Authorities said Leonel Rondon died after a chimney toppled by an exploding house fell on his auto as blasts ripped through three neighbourhoods near Boston. Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said residents in the southern part of the city had been asked to leave their homes whether or not they were Columbia Gas customers, due to planned power cuts.

Neighborhoods across three communities were forced to evacuate as crews attempted to douse the flames and shut off gas and electric lines to prevent further damage.

Massachusetts State Police are urging anyone whose homes are serviced by Columbia Gas in the area to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggle to understand what was happening.

There will be no school today in Andover, Lawrence or North Andover.

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Massachusetts State Police said a total of 70 fires, explosions or investigations of gas odor had been reported. "Make plans for at least between now and this time tomorrow", Rivera said early Friday. The injuries range from smoke inhalation to "traumatic blast injuries", the hospital said, adding that its staff has been preparing "for multiple casualties".

During a Friday press conference at Reagan National Airport, Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that while the NTSB normally investigates incidents such as crashes, it is in charge of this situation because pipelines are a "mode of transportation" for natural gas.

Officials said it will be at least a day if not longer before many residents will be allowed to return to their homes.

In a statement, Columbia Gas said crews will need to visit each of the 8,600 affected homes to shut off the gas meters and conduct a safety inspection.

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

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"Gas lines are now being depressurised", police said on Twitter, adding that "it will take some time".

Andover officials said they extinguished all 35 fires in their town after authorities struck a 10-alarm response, its maximum traditional fire response. "What we need folks to do is that if it's happening in your home, you have a amusing smell, just evacuate, come out to the street".

"It was very scary", Williams said, with smoke visible on the skyline.

The three communities house more than 146,000 residents and are located about 42 kilometres north of Boston.

"Right now, we're just trying to keep people safe". Joseph Solomon, a police chief in the town of Lawrence, said there were so many fires "you can't even see the sky".

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Laurie Williams, 55, who lives in North Andover, said she drove home to find police and fire vehicles blocking streets near her home, and found out three nearby buildings were in flames.

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