LAWRENCE — A gas leak forced hundreds of panicked residents to flee their homes in Lawrence before daybreak Friday, sowing fear in a neighborhood still recovering from the deadly gas fires and explosions a year ago.
Residents described police and firefighters banging on their doors at 4 a.m. and telling them to get out.
Lori Martin, a 53-year-old disabled homeowner, said she grabbed a pocketbook and sweater and hurried to a Walgreens parking lot, where she was loaded onto a bus and brought to Arlington Middle School, where 400 displaced residents were given food and temporary shelter.
Officials late Friday said the leak was triggered when contractors preparing for road work for the city of Lawrence were checking water valves in the area, and “inadvertently closed a gas valve,” puncturing a gas main. Officials added that the gas valve was “not compliant” with state standards and should have been disabled during construction work a year ago.
The mass evacuation came barely one year after a natural gas catastrophe on Sept. 13, 2018, caused more than 100 fires and explosions, killed one man, and displaced hundreds of residents, and just three days after the National Transportation Safety Board placed the blame for the disaster on local utility Columbia Gas.
Martin, who lived without heat and hot water for four months after last year’s gas explosions, said she was terrified to be contending with another gas crisis. “I’m very shaky,” she said Friday. “I’ve got such a headache right now. And it’s just stress.”
By Friday afternoon, officials allowed most residents to return home, saying the leak in a high-pressure gas pipe had been located and sealed off. At the time, city and state officials were refusing to disclose the cause, but were nonetheless assuring residents that it was an “isolated” incident, and it was safe for them to go home.
“We wouldn’t be saying there isn’t a public safety risk if we weren’t sure of that,” Governor Charlie Baker said at a press conference with Mayor Dan Rivera and other officials.
The city contractors were apparently checking the water valves early Friday morning when they set off the leak. Then around 3:15 a.m. a Lawrence police officer working on a detail assignment smelled gas and alerted public safety agencies, officials said. Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said the volume of gas released had been in the “explosive range.”
Police and firefighters quickly blanketed the neighborhood, knocking on doors and waking residents with bullhorns. One person suffered an apparent heart attack during the evacuation and was hospitalized, officials said.
Rebecca Talavera, 21, said her brother, Elijah, woke her up at 4 a.m. after he heard a commotion outside his window and smelled gas.
The electricity had been cut off, and Talavera scrambled in the dark to grab diapers and formula for her 3-month-old baby, Hunter, and to help her grandmother, who uses an oxygen machine, get out of the house.
She showed up at Arlington Middle School, carrying Hunter in a car seat. Pregnant a year ago when the gas explosions hit, she was furious that another emergency had occurred so soon.
“It’s ridiculous that they haven’t fixed it yet,” she said. “It’s a whole year later. We should just be moving on.”
At the Friday news conference, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts president Mark Kempic said the affected gas line was new, having been installed as part of the massive recovery effort that includes dozens of miles of new underground supply pipes. He, too, described the incident as “isolated,” and said residents should “feel safe tonight when they go to sleep.”
”We know that it’s not systemic across the area,” Kempic said. “That’s why people should feel safe.”
However, in a joint statement, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, the city of Lawrence, and Columbia Gas said that 45 other gas valves in the area would be immediately inspected to determine if they are in compliance with state standards. They expect the work will be finished Saturday, and in the meantime, the DPU suspended any construction work in the area and required Columbia Gas to deploy mobile leak detectors.
Just three days earlier, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its findings on the September 2018 disaster and faulted Columbia Gas for “weak engineering management.” The NTSB cited omissions on construction work that led to the supply system in parts of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover being overwhelmed by natural gas, setting off fires and explosions that killed 18-year-old Leonel Rondon and damaged more than 130 buildings.
Columbia Gas’s parent company, NiSource, has agreed to pay $143 million to settle class-action litigation and has spent millions of dollars more installing new gas lines, repairing roads, and installing new appliances and heating systems in the three communities since 2018.
On Friday, most residents were allowed to return home at 3 p.m., with the exception of a small number who live in the South Broadway area where the gas leak was discovered and repairs continue. A Red Cross shelter was to remain open Friday night.
Adding to the chaos in Lawrence, city officials dismissed Lawrence High School early on Friday after the threat of a shooting spread on social media. Police said they evacuated the school out of an abundance of caution and expect students to return Monday.
Danny McDonald and John Ellement of Globe staff and Globe correspondent Maria Lovato contributed to this report.