In Aftermath Of Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions, A Search For Answers

charlie baker merrimack valley gas explosions fire

Gov. Baker addresses the media following gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley on Thursday night. (Methuen Police)

LAWRENCE (WBZ-AM) -- Residents of North Andover waited for over an hour Friday morning to speak with representatives from Columbia Gas about the gas-related explosions and fires across the Merrimack Valley that left one dead, several injured, and thousands evacuated from their homes.

When representatives from the company finally showed up, they told the crowd, "We don't have any answers right now."

"I really think you should've came here with more information," one resident said.

It was still not clear what caused the explosions and fires to break out almost simultaneously across the towns of North Andover, Andover, and Lawrence Thursday night.

 

In Washington, D.C., Robert Sumwalt, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board--the federal body that investigates gas pipeline disasters--addressed the Merrimack Valley explosions.

"The NTSB's role is to conduct an accident investigation," he said. "We're there to investigate the accident, to determine what happened so we can keep it from happening again."

Addressing reporters, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said that federal officials as well as representatives from Columbia Gas were now working with local authorities to investigate.

"We do have several folks from the federal government who have arrived, there will be more coming in," Gov. Baker said. "They're gonna do the review on what I would called the 'What happened' piece ... I'm glad that we now have folks from Columbia and first responders. Typically, a police officer and a firefighter work in the communities with a list--they now know which houses they need to check."

Columbia Gas said Friday morning that they expected "an extended restoration effort." 

Gov. Baker had some questions for Columbia, which didn't put out their initial statement until nearly five hours after the explosions began.

"How quickly are they gonna be able to work with the local communities, with us and with others, to deal with the issues around lights and turning the power back on?" he said. "That could take a little while."

Commenters on Twitter ripped the company's initial statement, released around 9 p.m. Thursday. 

 
 
 

Asked to rate Columbia Gas's performance Thursday night, the governor called it "adequate," but said there was a lot of work left to do.

Former NTSB Managing Director Peter Goelz spoke to WBZ NewsRadio 1030 about the incident. 

"This is just an extraordinary situation, one that I certainly haven't seen before," he said. "The idea that the emergency response networks in those three cities were challenged in such a way, it's just inexplicable how this occurred ... it is really miraculous that there was only one fatality, and the devastation, as bad as it is, could've been much worse. I think people will be thankful for that."

Goelz consulted on the 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, which left eight people dead.

"In San Bruno, it was a 30-inch--which is quite large--transmission line, which had been in the ground since the late 1950s, which over time had developed a crack in a particular area of the pipe and it let go, and it was a devastating explosion that destroyed a large segment of a neighborhood there."

He said the NTSB made a series of recommendations after that disaster--including that gas companies need to coordinate closely with first responders, so those first responders know what's in the ground in their neighborhoods. 

"In this case, you obviously had some sort of over-pressure event," he said. "I think the investigation is gonna focus on, once they figure out what caused the over-pressure event, they're gonna focus on how quickly was the company able to shut down the gas in the lines, and how long did it take the gas to exit the lines. The idea of the geographic spread of the disaster is mind-boggling."

Goelz said the NTSB should start issuing factual reports "as soon as they're developed" and said the public could probably expect to hear reports from the organization daily, but that a full report on the incident could take upward of a year.

WBZ NewsRadio 1030's Karyn Regal (@Karynregal) reports

 

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