NORTON -- The blast exploded in a first-floor bathroom just before 1 a.m. Saturday with a force that knocked down the door and blew out windows of the apartment bordering a forest.
A 38-year-old man emerged from the wreckage, his face reddened by the explosion, saw his mother, a neighbor said, and fled in her car to a friend’s house in Attleboro. Rescuers found him there and took him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Back at the apartment on Faith Way, investigators traced the 12:53 a.m. explosion to an apparent methamphetamine lab there and evacuated the six-unit building where most residents, including the man’s mother, are at least 55 years old.
“Her son is dead. That is the most horrifying thing,” said Jeannie Steele, 78, who lives in the same building and was friendly with the victim. “The last time you see your son, his face is all burnt and he is running from life into death.”
Authorities on Saturday didn’t release the name of the victim. Steele and an official briefed on the investigation said the man began living with his mother at the residence less than a year ago after spending time in prison for meth-related offenses.
The illegal stimulant, which caused an abuse epidemic in the West and Midwest, has recently taken root in Massachusetts, the Globe reported in August, creating worries among public health officials who are already struggling with the opioid crisis.
In one high-profile case, State Police last month raided a North Attleborough home and arrested two people who lived there after finding evidence that the property concealed a secret meth lab.
In the Norton case, members of the state’s Clandestine Lab Enforcement Team were dispatched Saturday to investigate and clean up chemicals and residue released during the explosion. No one else was injured in the blast, authorities said.
“One of the great concerns about someone making meth in a residential situation is the risk to everybody else,” said Jennifer Mieth, spokeswoman for the state Department of Fire Services, which oversees the enforcement team. “They really put other people in the building at risk.”
Residents were evacuated to a nearby community center until a little after 9 a.m. when authorities let them return to their homes.
“It was unnerving to think something like that goes on,” said Anne Rhodes, who was evacuated from her apartment. “I was very grateful that it wasn’t a bigger deal. It could have been the whole place.”
Steele said she spoke to the victim on Friday. He bought her milk and delivered a heavy package of canned pea soup to her door.
She woke up early Saturday after a neighbor called saying she heard an explosion and worried whether Steele was OK. A short time later, officers came into her apartment and told her she needed to evacuate because of an explosion, Steele said.
When officers learned the man had fled the apartment, police notified neighboring communities, checked with area hospitals, and issued an alert for the vehicle he was driving.
A short time later, police and firefighters in Attleboro fielded a 911 call about a man experiencing “medical issues” at a residence on Pike Avenue, less than 4 miles from the blast site.
Investigators determined the stricken man had fled the explosion in Norton and rushed him to Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, where he was pronounced dead, police said.
Steele said the victim had told her he wanted to get a job and discussed his background with her.
“When you’re incarcerated for a length of time it’s not that easy to come out and be among the populace because you’re accustomed to being institutionalized,” she said.
In 2016, the victim pleaded guilty in Barnstable Superior Court to charges of methamphetamine possession with intent to distribute and was sentenced to four to six years in prison, court records show.
No one answered the door Saturday at his apartment, which was decorated with artificial flowers and a sign welcoming friends. Outside, part of the building was boarded up, cracked windows sat on the grass, and a brown shutter dangled from the siding.
Steele, who is being treated for cancer, reflected on the man’s flight from the apartment following the blast, imagining that he was afraid and feeling excruciating pain.
“I put myself in his shoes of what I would feel under such circumstances," she said. “That in itself is frightening.”