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Originally published on September 13, 2018 9:31 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Firefighters and police officers in Massachusetts are rushing to the towns of Lawrence and Andover tonight. Dozens of houses have exploded into flames apparently connected to a problem with the gas. Lawrence General Hospital says it is treating fire victims, and people are being told to evacuate, which has led to gridlock and traffic jams.

Maggie Penman of member station WGBH joins us from Andover. And, Maggie, the images that I'm seeing on TV are hard to fathom. What are you seeing where you are?

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari. So where I am in Andover's town center, it's actually pretty eerie. All the lights have gone out because the electricity to this whole area has been cut. So it's kind of like a ghost town. All the windows are dark. All the businesses are closed. And there have been a lot of people trying to get out of town, a lot of people wandering around because they've been told to leave their homes, and they're not quite sure where to go right now.

SHAPIRO: Everybody in the country had been watching a pending natural disaster with the hurricane, and this came seemingly out of nowhere. Do you have any sense of what the scale of this is?

PENMAN: So at its peak, I have heard that there were as many as a hundred fires burning, but no one is quite sure what the cause was. It seems to have been a problem with the local gas provider. And basically anyone who has gas service in their home in these communities has been told to leave their home. So I've seen a lot of people standing at the edge of their driveway, lots of traffic of people trying to evacuate and, you know, get out of here basically.

SHAPIRO: The number of people being told to evacuate their homes on such short notice without plans for where they're going to go has got to be causing just chaos.

PENMAN: Yeah it's - it was total chaos on the highway, and there were several exits that were closed, which only added to the traffic and the chaos because basically the emergency response teams were trying to prevent people from coming into these communities and also simultaneously get people out of them. So it was total chaos, tons of traffic, basically gridlock on 495, where three exits in a row were closed for these communities.

SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, at least one hospital has said that it's already treating fire victims. Do you have any sense of how many people might have been injured or killed in these explosions and fires?

PENMAN: I don't know how many people have been injured. I know here in Andover, there was a firefighter who was injured, and several people have been injured as well. But I'm not sure of exact numbers. I know that all of the area hospitals have been ready and prepared to receive people.

SHAPIRO: Have you talked to people in the area? There must be an incredible sense of fear and uncertainty tonight.

PENMAN: It's interesting 'cause there is a lot of fear and uncertainty, but there's also a lot of people who are sort of in this situation of being told to hurry up and wait. There are a lot of people walking around who don't know where to go. As I said, all the businesses are closed. All the lights are out - so, you know, not being able to go into your home but also not necessarily having anywhere else to go either.

SHAPIRO: Maggie Penman of member station WGBH, thanks for talking with us tonight.

PENMAN: Thanks so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Maggie Penman is covering that unfolding story of dozens of houses bursting into flames, a mass evacuation in these towns north of Boston. And we will have more on the story as it unfolds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.