Cause of park street fire remains undetermined merrimack valley eagletribune.com gas kush

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LAWRENCE — Columbia Gas crews on Friday sealed a leaking pipe in the ground outside a Park Street duplex where a fire severely burned a mother and daughter earlier in the day, but company officials said the leak was not the cause of the fire and a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal said an investigation into the cause will not begin until next week.

The two women – one in her 40s and the other in her 20s – were taken to Lawrence General Hospital and then to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston after suffering burns that fire Chief Brian Moriarty described only as “pretty bad.” Moriarty and police Chief James Fitzpatrick would not release their names, citing their privacy, so it was not possible to update their conditions.

Moriarty said a second daughter and friends from Florida visiting the family in the unit on the right side of the duplex at 336 Park St. escaped without injury, as did another mother and daughter living on the left side of the duplex. The unit on the right was destroyed and was the source of the blaze, Moriarty said. The unit on the left, at 334 Park St., suffered heavy water and smoke damage, he said.

Moriarty said witnesses told of hearing an explosion on property and said investigators will try to determine whether the explosion occurred before the fire broke out and so may have been a cause of it, or happened after the fire broke out and was a result of it.

“There was an explosion, but the reason for the explosion has not been determined,” said Andrea Luppi, a spokesperson for Columbia Gas. She said crews visited surrounding properties using what she called combustible gas indicators to search for leaks beyond the small one discovered outside the duplex that burned, but found none. In all, the company had five vehicles on the street outside the building Friday afternoon.

The fire was reported just after 11 p.m. Thursday by firefighter John Duggan, who was alerted by a neighbor while working a fire watch detail at a nearby apartment where the watch was posted recently because the building has no fire alarms, Moriarty said. He said Duggan raced a few hundred yards to the duplex, where he met the injured mother and daughter outside and began treating them.

A cell-phone video of the fire showed the right side of the building completely engulfed by the fire, including a wave of flames shooting out the front door and across the wooden stairs. The fire peeled the grey siding off the right side of the duplex, blew out its windows and sent an air conditioner tumbling to the ground. Several children’s toys and a dog kennel were scattered around the back yard and an empty lot next door. A view of the second floor through a back picture window showed ragged strips of insulation hanging from the ceiling, which had been stripped to its beams.

The duplex is in a tidy row of similar buildings on the west end of Park Street in the Arlington neighborhood, one of the city’s most densely populated. The Arlington middle and elementary schools are a block away. A sprawling apartment complex called Arlington Park is across the street. No neighboring buildings were damaged.

The street outside the duplex was a swirl of activity through the day on Friday. Firefighters extinguished the last of the embers. Construction workers boarded up windows and doors on both sides of the duplex with sheets of plywood and erected a fence around the outdoor gas meters. Columbia Gas crews vented gas from the ground around the leak. Police sealed off three blocks of Park Street, from Broadway to Spruce Street. A light rain fell.

Luppi, the Columbia Gas spokeswoman, said the gas leak was a small one and was likely the result of the deep freeze and then the thaw this week, which caused the earth around the pipe to heave. She said the cast iron pipe was installed before World War II and would eventually be replaced with PVC plastic as part of a program by the company that is replacing about 60 miles of pipe a year in its service area.

Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal, said investigators will join Lawrence firefighters at the building next week – after several feet of water is pumped from the two basements – to sift through the char and begin the search for a cause.