LAWRENCE, Massachusetts (Dispatches) -- A series of gas explosions one official described as "Armageddon" left at least one dead and 12 others injured and ignited fires in at least 39 homes in three communities north of Boston Thursday.
The explosions forced entire suburbs to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and turn off gas and electric lines to prevent further damage.
Some 8,000 people were driven from their homes in the Boston suburbs by a series of gas explosions, and it was unclear on Friday when they could go back.
Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening.
"It looked like Armageddon, it really did," Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield told reporters.
"There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see pillars of smoke in front of me from the town of Andover."
Governor Charlie Baker said state and local authorities are investigating but that it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers.
State police put the tally of fires and explosions at 70, up from the 39 initially reported. State police received between 60 and 100 reports of fires and gas explosions in the Merrimack region.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized, but officials who responded to the area were still investigating the cause. State officials said Columbia Gas was working to ease pressure on gas lines following the fires.
Columbia had announced earlier on Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions happened. It was not clear whether work was happening there on Thursday, and a spokeswoman did not immediately return calls.
Reached by phone, some local officials described scenes of panic as residents rushed to evacuate, many wondering if their homes would be next to erupt in flames. In North Andover, town selectman Phil Decologero said his entire neighborhood had gathered in the street, afraid to enter their homes. Just a few streets down, he said, homes were burning.
"It's definitely a scary situation at the moment," he said. "It's pretty severe."
Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to be torn apart by blasts.
Officials in Andover, a town of 35,000 residents had advised all residents and businesses to evacuate and to shut off their gas, if they know how to safely.
State Police said electricity was being shut off for all residents in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover, where some were still reporting an odor tied to natural gas.
The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 40 kilometers north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border. Lawrence, the largest of them, is a majority Latino city with a population of about 80,000.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said staff members were heading to Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, along with state fire investigators.