Baker declares state of emergency, puts Eversource in charge of recovery
Governor Charlie Baker, saying he was dissatisfied with Columbia Gas’s recovery efforts after Thursday’s outbreak of explosions and fires in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, announced Friday that he was declaring a state of emergency in the communities and putting Eversource in charge instead.
“The follow-through just wasn’t there,” he said. “We need to get on with this.”
He said it would be in the best interest of the communities “for us to get a new team leading this effort,” and it would hopefully “lead to a better game on the ground.”
“Today on a number of very significant issues we heard one thing and something else happened,” he said.
Based on the state of emergency declaration, the state had the authority to “put in charge . . . the organization that we want to have manage this effort,” he said.
Baker’s declaration authorized the chairman of the state Department of Public Utilities to authorize Eversource “to take management control over the coordinated effort to safely restore utility services,” governor’s spokesman Brendan Moss said in a statement.
Steve Bryant, the president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, at a later news conference, defended his company’s performance, pledged to continue a strong recovery effort, and promised to cooperate in an investigation.
“We’ve advanced this as rapidly as it could possibly be advanced,” Bryant said.
He said if the governor had decided to bring Eversource “into the mix, that’s what we will do, and we will support that approach to this.”
“I’m not saying the governor’s wrong at all,” he said. “The governor has the same interest as we do.”
“We are sorry,” he said, adding that the company was “deeply concerned about the inconvenience. This is the sort of thing a gas distribution company hopes never happens.”
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera at the earlier news conference had lambasted Columbia Gas.
“Since yesterday — since yesterday —when we first got word of this incident, the least informed and the last to act has been Columbia Gas,” Rivera said, standing next to the governor.
“It just seemed like there’s no one in charge, like they’re in the weeds, and they’ve never seen this before,” he said.
“They wasted today by not having a plan in place to deploy people to the city in an organized manner,” he said.
He recounted Columbia Gas asking him to evacuate everyone in South Lawrence, then asking him to get the power shut off there.
“So we did it,” he said. “Those are the last two coherent piece[s] of information we have got from Columbia Gas. Everything since then has been obfuscation.”
After Baker’s announcement, Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan joined in the criticism.
“Our attempts to work closely with Columbia Gas during this crisis have been met with little more than phone calls unreturned and questions unanswered,” Flanagan said in a statement.
“I applaud Governor Baker’s decision to use the full force of his office to support the repair and restoration efforts in the Merrimack Valley. People want to go back to their homes, and I am confident that this is a giant step in the right direction,” he said.
Bryant, whose remarks were the first public appearance by a company official in the 24 hours since the gas crisis erupted, said in his news conference that the company as of Friday afternoon had 107 contractors and 189 employees in the field for a total of 296 workers. He said another 100 were expected from Columbia’s affiliate companies in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
He declined to answer questions about the cause of the gas leaks, saying federal investigators had taken over and would be the ones to speak on the incident.
On Friday morning, officials had said workers from the gas company were joining local public safety workers, going house to house to ensure that conditions were safe after the harrowing wave of gas-fueled fires and explosions Thursday that killed one person, injured dozens, and forced thousands of evacuations.
Baker said hundreds of gas technicians were in, or on their way to, the communities.
“The utility technicians must do their jobs in order to make sure everyone has a safe place to return to. This will not be an easy process, and we ask for continued patience,” Baker said.
The gas company, which was formerly known as Bay State Gas, said in a statement Friday morning that its crews would need to visit “each of the 8,600 affected customers to shut off each gas meter and conduct a safety inspection. More than 500 resources from several affiliated Columbia Gas companies and other utilities are currently mobilizing to provide assistance.”
The company said the spate of fires and explosions that caused chaos and fear in the three communities Thursday night was “a tragic incident. We are saddened to learn of the death of a young man as a result of these events. Our thoughts and continued support are with those who have been injured and affected.”
But some were already criticizing the company’s public outreach in the wake of the incident. US Representative Seth Moulton said he had reached out to the company president Thursday and still not received an answer by early Friday afternoon.
Some 18,000 National Grid electrical customers in the three communities were still without power around 3:30 p.m. Friday. The electricity was turned off to prevent a spark from igniting any gas.
One Lawrence man, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, was killed when a house exploded, sending the chimney down onto the car where he was sitting. Nearly two dozen other people were reported to have been injured.
Staff at Lawrence General Hospital said Friday that a small wave of patients had come to the hospital, including Rondon, who was quickly transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston because of the extent of his injuries.
The officials said they were surprised the incident wasn’t worse.
“Honestly, we were expecting a lot more,’’ Dr. Earl Gonzalez said. “There was some that came right away. . . . We waited for a few more, and it slowed down. We were happy with that.”
Paul Brennan, the hospital liaison for emergency medical crews, said he was stunned that there were no other fatalities. He said he didn’t know why for certain, speculating that many people hadn’t gotten home from work yet.
“A lot of it was just pure luck,’’ he said. “Clearly, it’s a tragedy. We had a loss of life. It’s extremely surprising that there wasn’t much, much’’ more injuries.
“None of us knew how big that this was going to grow into,” Brennan said. “You can’t expect that your streets are going to be blowing up.”
Asked why so few lives were lost, given the scope of the incident, Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said Friday, “We got lucky and we have a lot of dedicated men and women who serve the city.”
Injured people were also treated at Holy Family Hospital.
Hundreds of public safety workers from Eastern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire converged on the three communities Thursday. In Andover alone during the peak of the crisis, more than 200 firefighters were working, along with 30 Andover police officers, 209 members of the NEMLEC, the regional SWAT team, and 13 State Police troopers, Andover police spokesman John Guilfoil said.
Kurt Schwartz, the state’s top emergency management official, said at the morning news conference that the public safety emergency that confronted first responders was over, and there has not been a gas-related emergency or fire since the night before.
Schwartz said public safety workers had responded to some 150 emergency calls in the three communities Thursday, including 60 to 80 structure fires.
He said between 8,100 and 8,500 gas meters were fed by “distribution lines that were overpressurized.”
“The investigation, as I understand it, will not be focused on the end users of the gas but on the distribution system and the origin of the pressure,” he said. “A number of years ago in Lexington, they had a similar overpressurization issue.’’
He acknowledged the public wants to know what happened and why, but he said that the full answer won’t come until a joint investigation by federal, state, and local agencies is completed.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are expected to be in Massachusetts on Friday. NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said his agency will be searching for what caused the explosion.
“Our mission is to find out what happened so we can learn from it and keep it from happening again,” Sumwalt said. “We are conducting a safety investigation. We are not there to point fingers and lay blame.”
Robert J. Chipkevich, a retired National Transportation Safety Board official who headed the pipeline accident investigation program for 15 years, said he was struck by the large number of building fires spread over such a large area.
He said if overpressurization was to blame, it could have been caused by human error — someone opening a valve — or a mechanical failure on a control valve.
He said once additional pressure floods into a pipeline, it can quickly flood homes all across the system with flammable gas, which can then be ignited by a pilot light on a stove, a hot-water heater, or an electric spark from a light switch being turned on. He said investigators will have to work methodically to trace the problem back to its source.
“There’s no question that there was overpressurization,” Mark McDonald, president of NatGas Consulting, a Boston company that investigates gas explosions, told the Globe on Thursday. “The question is how it happened.”
Massachusetts US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey issued a statement calling for a congressional hearing on the incident. The senators said they wanted to hear from regulators and the company to understand how the incident happened and how to prevent similar cases in the future.
This was the biggest incident in the United States of its kind since 2010, when a gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, Calif., just south of San Francisco, killing eight people and damaging dozens of homes.
Also investigating will be officials from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. On the state side, officials said, the Department of Public Utilities and MEMA will also participate in figuring out what went wrong.
In Lawrence, neighbors drove and walked along Jefferson Street to inspect a home that suffered catastrophic fire damage. The smell of smoke still lingered in the air.
“It’s so sad what happened here,” said Ricardo Favian, who lives nearby. He stayed in his home last night but questioned how Lawrence residents could feel safe when power is restored.
“When they give back the gas, will it be safe?” he asked. “It’s going to feel difficult to feel safety.”
Jacklin McKenzie of Methuen was visiting her grandparents on nearby Hamlet Street when she heard a massive explosion Thursday night and then saw the black smoke billowing from around the corner on Jefferson Street.
“I don’t even know how to describe how loud that noise was,” she said.
Her grandparents were evacuated to a family house in Maine on Thursday. She and her family returned with a police escort Friday to retrieve medication from the house.
Christel Nazario said he was glad to hear of Baker’s emergency declaration putting Eversource in charge.
“[Columbia] created this problem,” she said. “As far as we know, they did this. A young kid lost his life because of them.”
State, local, and private officials have made the following temporary changes to daily routines at least through Friday.
■ Public schools in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover are closed. Catholic schools in the three communities were also closed.
■ State courts in Lawrence are closed.
■ State offices in the three affected communities are closed. Non-emergency state workers who live or work in the three communities do not have to report for work Friday.
■ The MBTA said it was altering the Haverhill commuter line’s route and schedule.
■ Many highways, streets, and roads in and around the affected communities are closed.
A press release published Thursday on Columbia Gas’s website announced work to upgrade natural gas lines and improve service, including four ongoing projects in Andover, three in Lawrence, and two in North Andover. Lawrence police also posted on their Facebook account Thursday about street closures expected because of gas work.
Columbia Gas is part of NiSource, one of the largest fully regulated utility companies in the country, with approximately 3.5 million natural gas customers and 500,000 electric customers, according to the company’s website.
Six years ago in Springfield, a gas leak explosion from another Columbia Gas main leveled a strip club and injured 21 people. That was the result of a worker puncturing a gas line with a tool.
NiSource also faced scrutiny for another blast that year. In 2012, it was blamed for a West Virginia rupture that destroyed three homes, melted the siding on others, and heavily damaged an interstate highway.