US Agency Not Out to 'Lay Blame' in Massachusetts Blasts

US Agency Not Out to 'Lay Blame' in Massachusetts Blasts
The National Transportation Safety Board was continuing Saturday to investigate a series of gas explosions and fires in three Massachusetts towns, and the natural gas company in charge of the lines was struggling to explain its response.

The head of Columbia Gas, Stephen Bryant, on Friday offered his "sincere, deepest condolences" to the family of Leonel Rondon, the 18-year-old who was killed Thursday when a collapsing chimney fell on his car after a house blew up.

At a news conference, Bryant countered criticism that the company had not responded quickly or clearly enough to the crisis. "Generally, I would say we have advanced this as rapidly as it could possibly be advanced," he said. "I don't think anybody else managing this would have been farther down the road than we are at this moment." 

NTSB representatives arrived in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on Friday to begin looking into the cause of the explosions and fires, which damaged as many as 80 homes and left about two dozen people injured.

Robert Sumwalt, NTSB chairman, told reporters, "Our mission is to find out what happened so we can learn from it and keep it from happening again. We are conducting a safety investigation. We are not there to point fingers and lay blame."

Role for rival company

But residents and local officials have complained that Columbia Gas has not responded quickly, clearly or effectively to the crisis. On Friday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency for the Merrimack Valley region and said he was assigning a rival energy company to take charge of recovery.

"The follow-through just wasn't there," he told The Boston Globe. "We need to get on with this."

Officials said 8,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes while emergency workers checked each dwelling serviced by Columbia Gas to shut off the gas lines. Electrical power to those homes was also shut off to avoid a spark that could ignite any leaked gas and cause a new disaster.

Four hundred people went to shelters after Massachusetts State Police urged them to evacuate their homes. Baker said it might be days or weeks before those displaced could return to their homes.

Preliminary investigations indicated excess pressure in the gas lines might have caused the blasts. Before Thursday's disaster, Columbia Gas had notified its customers that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state.