BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday afternoon declared a state of emergency in the wake of a series of gas fires and explosions in the Merrimack Valley, handing over control of the response to Eversource in place of the local utility that Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said had been "hiding from the problem."
About 23 hours after the first fires broke out in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, a visibly frustrated Rivera blasted Columbia Gas as "the least informed and the last to act."
Rivera said Columbia Gas asked city officials Thursday to evacuate South Lawrence and to turn off the power. "Those are the last two coherent pieces of information we got from Columbia Gas. Everything since then has been obfuscation, and they have not met their mandate," he said.
Baker said he decided to declare a state of emergency after speaking with Rivera, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and other officials, and that doing so gave him the authority to assign Eversource to "manage this effort on behalf of the Commonwealth."
Baker said that he believed the switch would "make a big difference" in the relationship between what state and local officials are told, and what actually happens.
"Today, on a number of very significant issues, we heard one thing and something else happened," Baker said. "We heard one thing, something else happened."
Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan called Baker's move "a giant step in the right direction."
"Our attempts to work closely with Columbia Gas during this crisis have been met with little more than phone calls unreturned and questions unanswered," he said in a statement.
In a separate press conference later in the afternoon, Columbia Gas President Steve Bryant announced the opening of a claims hotline, and said the utility had worked with the city of Lawrence to set up a claims center.
"Our focus today and in the coming days is to support the Merrimack Valley and ensure the safety of the communities that we serve," he said.
Bryant said the company had shut off service to 3,230 customers as of Friday afternoon. He said the electricity restoration process would begin Friday evening in areas where gas was shut off.
Asked about the comments by Rivera and Baker, Bryant said he respected the governor's judgment and that the utility has been meeting with state officials "on a very regular basis."
He said Columbia Gas has been using all its resources "to get this project as far down the road as possible."
"I don't think that anybody else managing this would have been further down the road than we are at the moment," Bryant said.
Congressman Seth Moulton said in a radio interview Friday morning that the dozens of fires were caused by a "human mistake."
Moulton, who lives in Salem and represents North Andover and parts of Andover, relayed information he said he learned Thursday night from federal regulators.
"I did get a good response from federal regulators who called me last night and said that they think they understand what's gone wrong - that some high pressured gas line was inadvertently connected to the low pressure lines that feed houses. That forced a lot of gas right through the system and into people's homes and obviously caused tremendous damage," Moulton told WBZ radio.
Expressing frustration with Columbia Gas, Moulton added, "This is not a natural disaster here in Massachusetts. This is a human mistake. This is a human disaster. This is a corporation that really failed its customers, and we've got a lot of work to do to clean up from this, to inspect the homes, to get people back in their homes and then to make sure this never happens again."
Bryant said he could not discuss the source of the problem, given that the National Transportation Safety Board has taken control of the investigation. He said he had "no evidence or any reason to take any action against any employee at this point."
In its most recent online statement on the incident, issued at 11:10 a.m. Friday, Columbia Gas said it expected "an extended restoration effort" as crews visit each of the 8,600 affected customers to shut off gas meters and conduct safety inspections.