LAWRENCE — Joshua Guerrero opened the door to his basement door and was met by flames.
The blaze, at the home his father owns 137 Abbott St., was one of an estimated 30 fires and related incidents in Lawrence on Thursday afternoon and evening after a high-pressure gas line cause a swath of destruction in the area.
“I grabbed my cat. I grabbed my Dad and I got out of there,” said Guerrero.
He said he dialed 911 for help but kept losing the connection. His father eventually went into the basement with a garden hose to extinguish the flames, he said, adding 10 or 11 homes in the area had similar fires.
Minutes later, Lawrence police and state trooper blasted down nearby South Union Street telling people over loud speakers to evacuate their homes immediately.
A crew of Lawrence firefighters arrived in a ladder truck. Behind them, firefighters were stacked in the bed of a blue pickup truck. The jakes jumped out and started urging residents to shut off their gas and get out of their homes.
Nearby on Phillips Street, Estarlin Henriquez was in the bathroom when he heard his mother screaming. The 12-year-old bolted from the house with his mother, who stood in the street holding a bowl or rice and beans she’d just made for her son.
Salem, New Hampshire, firefighters came to the house later to check out the gas issue there.
Police Chief Roy Vasque said there were upward of 30 fires and incidents related to the gas pressure issue Thursday.
Full blown fires were reported on Chickering Road, Springfield and Brookfield streets and other locations. There were many boiler and basement smoke and fire issues as well that rescuers attended to, he said.
“It was chaotic,” he said.
Vasque responded to the first major fire at 34 Chickering Road, where a woman was trapped inside the house and a man in a car outside. The victim in the car, Leonel Rondon, 18, died at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The house was absolutely leveled,” he said. “After that, the calls just kept coming in.”
He said he immediately reached out to North Andover police for help. Almost at the same time, Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon called and said he was sending his entire shift of officers over to Lawrence. The department’s emergency response team was also activated, Solomon said.
“We started calling assets in and then everyone in the world started showing up. Word spread and everyone started coming,” said Vasque.
The sheer number of fires pushed firefighters to the limit.
A house on Kingston Street burned for nearly an hour before firefighters were able to get to it.
Firefighters worked for hours at the Springfield Street fire, which occurred in a multifamily house. Methuen police officers stood behind crime scene tape guarding the area.
Meanwhile, area residents dragged away overnight bags and luggage. Some residents sat in their cars eating meals out of take-away boxes. The smell of gas and smoke wafted throughout the southern and eastern sides of the city.
As the evening progressed, hundreds and hundreds police officers, firefighters and ambulance personnel descended on the city and started responding to calls.
Firefighters and their trucks from a variety of departments were visible all over Lawrence. National Grid cut electricity to the city and residents were urged to evacuate South Lawrence.
Traffic built up at intersections with police and sometimes volunteers jumping in to direct traffic. Officers were stationed at various checkpoints thoughout Lawrence, including Merrimack and Andover streets, where they blocked drivers from entering the city and ushered out those leaving.
On Interstate 495, northbound traffic was gridlocked during the night. Exits to Lawrence and Andover were blocked by state police.
Several evacuees were at the former Denny’s restaurant on Winthrop Avenue. Most declined to talk to the media.
“It’s pretty frightening to see your house explode,” one woman said.
Cameron Couillard, of Lowell, who was getting ready to leave the parking lot at a shopping plaza on Winthrop Avenue, said he heard many buildings were on fire. He is employed at the plaza and said “everybody heard the shake” from the explosion on Chickering Road.
With the exception of some generator lighting and blue and red lights, South Lawrence was in darkness. Police officers were all over the city, safeguarding intersections because traffic lights were out.
The old Showcase Cinema parking lot, right off I-495, was packed with emergency vehicles.
“Obviously, I am grateful for the support from everyone ... I can’t say enough about it all,” Vasque said.
Officers from across the region — including Boston, Cambridge and the Massachusetts State Police — were on hand in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover assisting with patrols overnight, according to Vasque.
With electricity out at least across South Lawrence and parts of North Andover, Vasque said officers had to be posted at all intersections without functioning traffic lights.
Then there were concerns about potential crime, including the possibility of looting, that beget the desire for increased patrols.
“It’s always a possibility,” Vasque said of overnight crime. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it’s a possibility.”
Late Thursday night, Vasque said it was “still full steam ahead” and checks were starting at homes and buildings to see if gas levels had lowered enough to allow people back in their homes.
Reporters Paul Tennant and Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this story.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTrib Jill.