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Series of Explosions Rip Through Residential Area; Scores Evacuated

August 20, 1988

GLOUCESTER, Mass. (AP) _ A series of underground explosions ripped through this seacoast city Friday, damaging two houses and forcing 200 people to evacuate their homes and businesses, authorities said. No one was injured.

″I heard a loud explosion. I looked out, the sewer manhole cover blew off the ground,″ said merchant Patricia Genest. ″None of us knew what was going on at all. People were running away from sewers and manhole covers.″

″It sounded like bombs going off. It was one manhole right after the other,″ said gas station owner John Curley. The explosions took place about a quarter mile from the city’s downtown and not far from a famous statue of a fisherman.

The explosions apparently were caused by gasoline in the sewer system, said Fire Chief Barry McKay.

Mayor William Squillace declared a state of emergency at 5:30 p.m., but lifted it about two hours later.

″We seem to have everything under control,″ he said about 9 p.m., five hours after the blasts. ″We’ve done a reading in the sewer system of the possibility of an explosion, and there is no danger of an explosion. All of the systems have been vented.″

″We had a series of underground explosions - about 10 right in a row - and now they’re evacuating the area and it’s causing a major traffic jam,″ said police Officer Merrill Newman. ″The telephone just lit up like a Christmas tree and people were almost hysterical.″

Gloucester Fire Capt. Louis Aiello said six trucks responded to the alarms.

Authorities suspect the explosions were set off by the removal of a gasoline tank from a petroleum products distribution yard, McKay said.

″There was a company removing a gasoline tank upstream of the sewer system,″ he said. State and federal investigators will try to determine whether the gasoline was the source of the explosions and how it might have entered the sewer system, he said.

A strong smell of gasoline hovered in the area hours after the explosions.

Smoke and some flames were visible after the explosions, but officials said any fires in the sewer system apparently extinguished themselves.

Officials said they believe the gasoline caused about 20 manhole covers to blow as it traveled through the sewer system.

Built-up pressure vented at two houses, causing some structural damage. The blast cracked a concrete patio at the home of Pat Cusick, 32, a construction worker. It also broke his 35-foot concrete driveway into chunks the size of telephone books.

″I’m a nervous wreck,″ Cusick said, surveying the damage and holding up five wooden steps leading to his back door that broke loose in the blast. He said he was driving toward home when he saw a manhole cover blow. ″I saw flames shoot right out of the manhole.″

Cusick said he was glad he did not arrive home sooner. ″I would have been parked right here,″ he said, pointing to the shattered driveway.

At a house across the street, half the front lawn was ripped up, a crack ran along the foundation and the sidewalk was ruptured. A 3-foot high wall made of cinder blocks had fallen.

″It’s amazing that nobody got killed,″ said Acting Fire Capt. John Hautalla.

While police earlier said hundreds of people were evacuated from a 10-block area to a school, fire department spokesman Clarence Rudolph said only 200 people were evacuated from a four-block area near downtown.

Most of the people who were told to leave their homes went to the houses of friends or relatives, or stood by police barriers and watched, said Charles Thomas, a director of the local Red Cross. Only about a dozen came to the school.

By nightfall, people were being allowed to return to their homes behind fire officials who checked manholes for more flammable substances.

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