Gov. Charlie Baker said Friday he is declaring a State of Emergency for the Merrimack Valley due to the way Columbia Gas has handled a series of natural gas explosions that killed a teenager, injured 25 others and left dozens of homes in smoldering ruins.
Based on that declaration, Baker said he is authorizing the chairman of the Department of Public Utilities to give Eversource management control over the effort to restore utility services.
"I certainly believe at this point that it is in the best interests of the people of Lawrence and North Andover and Andover for us to get a new team leading this effort," the governor said. "And I do believe this will lead to a better game on the ground."
Bill Akley, President of Eversource Gas Business, said there will be a 3-phase effort to restoring gas to customers which is not a short-term restoration effort.
"We will bring every resource available and we will work around the clock and we vow to have an open communication with all the officials — the governor — to keep everybody apprised of the status and obviously the progress as we work through this event," Akley said.
Columbia Gas will still be working with Eversource as a collaborative effort.
Authorities said an estimated 8,000 people were displaced at the height of Thursday's post-explosion chaos in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, the three north of Boston towns rocked by the disaster. Most were still waiting, shaken and exhausted, to be allowed to return to their homes.
Baker said he and the other community leaders tried to give Columbia Gas an opportunity to deal with the situation, but the company repeatedly failed to honor statements they had made.
"Today, on a number of very significant issues, we heard one thing and something else happened," he said. "The follow-through just wasn't there. We don't have time. We need to get on with this."
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera was also heavily critical of the gas company.
"Since yesterday, when we first got word of this incident, the least informed and the last to act has been Columbia Gas," he said. "It seems like there's no one in charge. Like they're in the weeds and they've never seen this before."
"Neighbors who watched their houses blown up next to them have no understanding of why that happened and what's being done to fix it," he added. "This is real people and real issues."
The rapid-fire series of gas explosions ignited fires in 60 to 80 homes in the three communities, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas and electricity.
Authorities said Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died after a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car. He was rushed to a Boston hospital but pronounced dead there in the evening. Another 25 were injured.
Gas and electricity remained shut down Friday in most of the area, and entire neighborhoods were eerily deserted.
Brenda Charest stood anxiously on her front porch while a crew checked her undamaged home before giving her the all-clear to return Friday. On Thursday, she had come home to a hissing sound in her basement and a strong odor of natural gas.
"We took off. I said, 'Pack up, we're out of here,'" said Charest, who went with her 93-year old father and cat to a relative's home. "It was scary. We didn't know anything."
On Thursday, Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield described the unfolding scene as "Armageddon."
Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to be torn apart by blasts.
"There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see pillars of smoke in front of me from the town of Andover," Mansfield told reporters.
Shelters remain open at the Parthum School at 255 East Haverhill St. in Lawrence, the Arlington Middle School at 150 Arlington St. in Lawrence, the field house at North Andover High School at 430 Osgood St. and the Cormier Youth Center at 40 Whittier Court in Andover. About 400 people stayed there on Thursday night.
Columbia Gas had mostly remained silent since the start of the incident, issuing its only public statements via press releases. That changed on Friday afternoon when Steve Bryant, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, spoke publicly for the first time. He did not try to rebut the claims made by Baker and Rivera, opting for a more diplomatic approach.
"I'm not saying the governor's wrong at all," Bryant said. "The governor has the same interests as we do, which is restoring service as quickly as possible. If the judgment of the governor is bringing Eversource into the mix, that's what we will do and we will support that approach to this."
Bryant said gas service has now been shut off for about 3,200 of the 8,000 customers who were forced to evacuate, and he expects to have all of them shut off and power to be restored by the end of the weekend.
He said there are nearly 300 technicians working in the field now, and another 100 are expected to arrive on Saturday.
A claims hotline is being set up at 1-800-590-5571, and a claims center will open at 9 a.m. Sunday at the Lawrence Public Library.
"If you're not on the safe list, assume you remain in the evacuation zone and we're doing everything we can to get you home as quickly as possible," Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanigan said. "We're with you, we're working around the clock, all of our local resources have been deployed, and we'll continue to work until we get our residents home."
Even if they are cleared to return home, officials stressed that residents should not turn their gas back on themselves.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency initially blamed Thursday's fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized but said investigators were still looking into what happened.
Bryant said he does not know what caused the series of explosions, and said it will be up to the National Transportation Safety Board team that arrived Friday to determine that.