WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR
- Dozens of explosions and fires are affecting four towns north of Boston, Massachusetts
- Evacuation orders are in place for gas run homes in Lawrence, Andover, North Andover and Merrimack River
- Explosions caused by problem with a gas line
AT least 70 gas explosions and fires have rocked a cluster of towns north of Boston - leaving multiple injured and forcing many residents to flee in panic.
A natural gas issue is being blamed and homes serviced by Columbia Gas have been told to evacuate and turn off their gas supply.
Affected towns include Andover, North Andover and Lawrence - where evacuation orders are now in place.
Massachusetts State Police confirmed they were investigating 70 cases of fire, explosion or gas related incidents between South Lawrence, North Andover and Merrimack River areas.
They earlier advised that troopers are working secure areas after "multiple suspected gas explosions."
Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon says there are so many fires "you can't even see the sky". He said "20 to 25 homes were on fire in Lawrence" alone.
WCVB-TV reports there were 39 confirmed fires in the Merrimack Valley.
Lawrence Police Chief Roy Vasque told The Eagle-Tribune newspaper that he's "never seen anything like this."
Footage filmed from local TV helicopters showed orange flames and a large amount of smoke rising from several buildings.
Emergency crews are rushing to douse the flames and shut down gas and electricity lines to prevent any more damage.
WCVB reported one explosion caused a North Andover home to blow off its foundation. A witness said he saw people trying to crawl out of the debris after the explosion.
Police have urged residents in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover who have gas service from Colombia Gas to evacuate their homes "immediately" if they haven't already.
"Gas lines are currently being depressurised by the company, it will take some time," a Mass State Police tweet read.
They said it was "far too early to speculate" on the cause.
"A joint investigation will be conducted when the situation is stabilised."
Town officials in Andover are advising all residents and businesses to evacuate and to shut off their gas, if they know how to safely. The town of 35,000 residents is about 40 km north of Boston near the New Hampshire border.
In neighboring North Andover, town Selectman Phil Decologero said that his entire neighborhood had gathered in the street, afraid to enter homes.
He warned anyone with concerns to leave their houses and head to North Andover High School, which is being set up as a gathering point.
"It's definitely a scary situation at the moment," he said. "It's pretty severe."
Entire neighborhoods were being evacuated in Lawrence. City Councilor Marc Laplante said authorities were shutting off electric power and urging residents in the Colonial Heights neighborhood to head to Parthum elementary and middle schools.
"People need to get out of this area safely, and it's really difficult because the traffic right now is horrendous," he said.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said staff members were heading to Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, along with state fire investigators.
It's unclear if anyone has been injured.
Local radio station WBZ reports traffic is gridlock due to panicked residents rushing to evacuate.
State Police said all off-ramps exiting into the towns have been closed. On ramps have been left open to allow for evacuation.
Troopers are working to help the traffic flow and keep panicked residents calm.
Columbia Gas is the gas service provider in the area. Police have said the company has shut off 8000 customers as they work to contain the situation.
The company's website said on Thursday they had planned to upgrade natural gas lines in neighbourhoods across Massachusetts. It's not clear where the work was happening today.
More to come.