Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover in a staccato burst of flame and fear late Thursday afternoon, killing one person and damaging dozens of buildings and prompting mass evacuations from homes served by Columbia Gas.
State and local emergency workers descended quickly on the three Merrimack Valley communities, battling the fires, tending to the injured, and working frantically to pinpoint the cause of the explosions.
At least one person died in Lawrence, according to the Essex District Attorney’s office. The man, Leonel Robson, 18, was sitting in a car on Chickering Road in Lawrence when a chimney from a house explosion fell on the car.
He was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
At least six people were injured, two critically, according to Lawrence General Hospital. A spokeswoman for the state fire marshal’s office said Thursday evening that investigators are focusing on overpressurization of a gas main owned by Columbia Gas, which serves about 50,000 customers in and around Lawrence and had been upgrading its equipment in the area.
“This is like Armageddon,” said Garry Frizzell, 51, of North Andover, as he watched emergency vehicles roar past his house toward two nearby fires.
Frizzell said he had smelled gas in his house at 4:45 p.m. “I said, ‘I left the stove on’ — then I realized I hadn’t used it in three days,” he said. Nearby, one man ran from house to house shutting off gas mains.
National Grid, which provides electricity to the area, turned off electricity to its customers in the affected area, said National Grid spokeswoman Christine Milligan. But the decision about whether to cut power was a delicate one for some town officials.
The National Transportation Safety Board will send a team to Lawrence on Friday morning to investigate the explosions, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said. The FBI also will send investigators.
Columbia Gas, in a statement, said Thursday night that its “crews are currently responding to reports of multiple fires in Lawrence. Our thoughts are with everyone affected by today’s incident.”
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said displaced residents should have no expectations they will be able to return home Friday, but he described the city as “a very resilient community. We’re going to be OK. Everyone’s going to band together.”
“We even got an e-mail from the White House,” he said. “People have been reaching out to make sure we’re OK.”
Governor Charlie Baker visited Lawrence after the explosions.
“There will be plenty of time later tonight, tomorrow morning, and into the next day to do some of the work around determining exactly what happened and why,” Baker said over the rumble of diesel generators as a helicopter whirred overhead.
“The focus in the short term,” Baker said, “is to make sure that we do everything we can to provide shelter for people who need shelter, to provide safety in the communities that have been directly affected by this, and to speak with the folks at Columbia to make sure that everything we’re doing and they’re doing is going to ensure that these communities remain safe overnight and into tomorrow.”
Speaking earlier Thursday evening at North Andover High School, emergency management director Jeff Coco told residents that “we’re currently trying to keep the high school on with electricity.”
“Understand: All of our public facilities in North Andover have shut off the gas precautionarily,” he said. “But that’s a double-edged sword because the gas supplies the generators to the facilities. And if the power goes out, we’re going to be in the dark.”
Nearly 18,000 National Grid customers in the three communities were without power as of 9 p.m, according to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. Because of the power shutdown, Rivera asked all residents of South Lawrence to evacuate their homes.
William Hartung, a 49-year-old subcontractor, said Thursday evening was hectic in South Lawrence. Many people were in front of their homes, confused about what was taking place, he said.
Traffic was snarled. Streets were shut down. There was a heavy police presence directing people where to go, he said.
“It felt like martial law,” he said.
Shortly after 8 p.m., Police Chief Joseph Solomon from neighboring Methuen said all of the fires in the three communities appeared to be out, and that authorities had shut off all the power and gas in Lawrence.
“Hundreds of lights are being brought in to light some of the streets, and extra police patrols will be out,” Solomon said after a briefing with law enforcement officials.
Streets bordered by flames soon were covered in a tangle of water hoses from fire equipment rushed to the scene from dozens of communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. State Police converged on the area, as did scores of local safety personnel.
Bewildered and sometimes-panicked residents, responding to shouts from police and fire officials to leave their homes, poured into the streets, asking friends and strangers for scraps of information about what suddenly had happened in their neighborhoods.
“It’s crazy,” said Matt Bourque, 28, who grew up in Lawrence. “You never think something like this could happen right down the street.”
In Andover, 35 fires in total were extinguished by firefighters who at one time faced 18 blazes burning at once. The town struck 10 alarms at 5 p.m., its maximum response, which sent 20 fire engineers and 10 ladder trucks to the town, plus Andover’s entire department.
Some of that equipment then was dispatched to North Andover and Lawrence, each of which also struck 10 alarms. A plea for help to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency brought an additional 20 vehicles to the town.
At least three people, including a firefighter, were injured in Andover, town officials said.
The Andover Senior Center and Youth Center were opened for displaced residents. Four other shelters were opened in Lawrence and North Andover.
Public schools in Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence will be closed on Friday, according to postings on their home pages.
As dusk fell Thursday, residents gathered at North Andover High School. Some called family. Others calmed children. And just about everyone was exchanging information — how many fires and where?
“Have you heard anything?” was the most common question.
People also told their stories.
“I was cooking in the house around 4:15 or so, and my stove went out,” recalled Terry Dunlavey of North Andover. She said she called her landlady and soon found out what was happening, as she heard the sirens from police, fire apparatus, and ambulances.
“It was chaos, absolute chaos,” said Dunlavey, who added that she was thinking about victims. “If anyone prays, pray,” she said.
Columbia Gas began cutting off service after the explosions. The utility 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.
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 Mayor Rivera was one of the many public officials who went street by street urging residents to evacuate their homes. “The big deal is to get out if you smell gas,” Rivera said.
James Cohne and Jack Ventre, both 11, were returning from playing in a park in the city when they saw a house smoking on Green Street, next door to Cohne’s house. The boys ran inside and called for help.
“My husband I came running out in our bare feet,” said Christine Cohne, who called 911. The dispatcher on the other end of the line replied: “There’s fires all around you. If you smell gas, get out,’ ” Cohne said. “I had no idea that all this was happening.”
Elsewhere in Lawrence, a fire had flattened a home on Jefferson Street, and a team of firefighters worked into the night to make sure it was under control.
Some of them stood on a brick staircase leading up to where the front door should have been. A blackened wall hung crazily on one side of the ruined structure, and water from the hoses ran down the street.
No residents could be seen in the darkened neighborhood.
For much of the evening, Interstate 495 in the region was gridlocked. Police and emergency vehicles were pushing their way through the traffic, and an exit into downtown Lawrence was closed.
John Ellement, Danny McDonald, and Andy Rosen of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Abigail Feldman contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.