NORTH ANDOVER – Havoc was wrought across town Thursday evening when 12 to14 homes caught fire amid a calamitous gas line accident that set three towns in the Merrimack Valley ablaze.

Town Manager Andrew Maylor said at least a dozen homes burned Thursday. The smell of smoke and gas permeated the air, while emergency response vehicles snarled rush hour traffic. 

On Herrick Street, just off Waverly Road, thick, black smoke poured from a large, old house. It appeared to take the firefighters a significant amount of time to get water flowing into the home. At least one fire hydrant on Waverly Road did not appear to be working.

No flames were visible but the windows of the home spewed thick smoke. The sounds of helicopters overhead mixed with sirens passing by as emergency crews headed to other fires.

The emergency response tied up traffic on Waverly Road, as neighbors stood outside watching the firefighters work.

Bill Gibbs, the homeowner, arrived at the house about 20 minutes after his neighbor called him to report the fire. He said he’d been on the scene for 10 minutes but did not have any information yet.

“They don’t know anything,” he said.

When asked if he could describe how he was feeling, Gibbs answered simply: “no.”

“I won’t be sleeping there tonight,” he added.

A neighbor, Klara Strakosha, said she loved the old house.

“I think this house is done,” she said sadly. “It’s very old.”

As the evening grew dark, North Andover opened three shelters: the high school field house, the youth center and the senior center. Gas was cut to all public buildings in the town.

Andrea Rosebach packed up her frightened cat, Precious, into a carrier and headed for a shelter nearby. She heard about the explosions on the radio on her way home from work, and quickly decided to grab the cat and head out. 

As the evening grew dark, North Andover opened three shelters: the high school field house, the youth center and the senior center. Gas was cut to all public buildings in the town.

Some residents had gone to North Andover Middle School seeking shelter, but the town decided not to open the building because gas lines run under the cafeteria and auditorium of the middle school, said Jeff Coco, director of emergency management.

Maylor said 1,850 houses were without power across town to reduce the risk associated with the gas leaks. Those impacted are primarily between Massachusetts Avenue, Waverly Road and Main Street. 

Power was cut to businesses along Route 114, including The Eagle-Tribune.

Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this report.