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As investigators worked to pinpoint the cause of a series of dramatic natural gas explosions in three towns north of Boston, Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker toured the neighborhood where an 18-year-old was killed by a falling chimney. (Sept. 14)
AP

LAWRENCE, Mass. – The day after fleeing a series of dramatic explosions in her neighborhood, Betsy Santiago was wearing the same clothes and trying to get back home to retrieve medication for herself and her mother. 

“I’m still in my uniform,” she said at an American Red Cross shelter Friday afternoon. “We had to leave quickly. I couldn’t take anything.”

The natural has explosions and fires leveled dozens of homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, fueled fires across the three towns, injured at least 25 people and killed 18-year-old Leonel Rondon.

Rondon had just earned his driver’s license. He was sitting in his car when a chimney fell on top of it.

“It’s crazy how this happened,” friend Cassandra Carrion told The Boston Globe.

The chaos forced more than 8,000 people from their homes, snarling traffic and creating widespread confusion. Most were still waiting to return to their homes on Friday.

The gas company said Friday it was working to ensure the lines were safe, requiring technicians to shut off gas meters and conduct safety inspections, before residents can return.

State and federal investigators are investigating the cause of the gas leaks. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers.

Baker acknowledged the “massive inconvenience” for those displaced by the explosions. He said hundreds of gas technicians were going house to house to ensure each was safe.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on over-pressurized gas lines.

The system is owned by Columbia Gas, a subsidiary of Indiana-based NiSource. In 2014, a Columbia Gas pipeline explosion in Springfield, Mass., 100 miles from Lawrence, injured 21 and destroyed a strip club.

Columbia Gas has some of the oldest and most leak-prone gas pipes in the nation, with 471 miles of cast-iron and wrought-iron gas distribution lines, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal data.

More: Natural gas explosions: Boston-area gas pipes among oldest and leakiest in US

More: Nearly 40 homes catch fire after natural gas tragedy north of Boston; 1 dead

Ed Brennan spent the night at a hotel in nearby Haverhill with his wife and mother. He said he was surprised that Columbia Gas didn’t have a plan in place to communicate with customers.

“Everyone has gas lines, and when this kind of thing happens, when there are dozens of things happening all over the area, it feels like Russian roulette: ‘Is my house going to be okay?’” he said.

“I’m pretty confident when they give us the all clear to go home, it will be okay. But I’ll definitely be a little on edge for the first few days.”

Lawrence, an old mill town 30 miles north of Boston in the Merrimack Valley, has a faded charm, with a historic, brick-paved downtown surrounded by frame houses mixed with green spaces, small shops and churches, It’s attracted working-class immigrants throughout its history, and is now 77 percent Hispanic. 

Residents said they haven’t been told when they can return home. Some said they didn’t know what they would find out.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said the roughly 4,000 residents who live south of the Merrimack River will remain out of their homes for the time being.

“We’re keeping out,” he said. “We have to go house to house. … The goal here is safe and secure. Not fast.”

Betty Ann Joseph was home alone Thursday night when she heard a loud boom. She thought a car ran into the house.

“It’s something like you see in the movies,” she said. “You see the fires popping up. I didn’t know it was a chain reaction.”

She fled with her dog and nothing else.

“I’m praying the house is there,” she said. “I know my blood pressure is up. It’s the not knowing.”

But on the day that Hurricane Florence slammed into the Carolinas, she said she was thankful that she wasn’t dealing with a different sort of disaster. 

“Everywhere has its uncertainty,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Thank God I’m not in the Carolinas.'”

Gregory Korte contributed from McLean, Va. and Kevin McCoy from New York. The Associated Press contributed.

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