Investigators trying to pinpoint cause of gas explosions that killed a teen in Boston

Investigators worked this morning to pinpoint the cause of a series of fiery natural gas explosions that killed a teen driver in his car just hours after he got his license, injured at least 25 others and left dozens of homes in smoldering ruins.

Authorities said an estimated 8,000 people were displaced at the height of Thursday's post-explosion chaos in three towns north of Boston rocked by the disaster. Most were still waiting, shaken and exhausted, to be allowed to return to their homes.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to help investigate the disaster in a state where some of the aging gas pipeline system dates to the 1860s.

The rapid-fire series of gas explosions that one official described as "Armageddon" ignited fires in 60 to 80 homes in the working-class towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas and electricity.

Gas and electricity remained shut down Friday in most of the area, and entire neighborhoods were eerily deserted.

Authorities said Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died after a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car. He was rushed to a Boston hospital and pronounced dead Thursday evening.

Rondon, a musician who went by the name DJ Blaze, had just gotten his driver's license, grieving friends and relatives told The Boston Globe. "It's crazy how this happened," said a friend, Cassandra Carrion.

The state Registry of Motor Vehicles said Rondon had been issued his driver's license only hours earlier Thursday.

Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in the three communities to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening.

Some 400 people spent the night in shelters, and school was canceled Friday as families waited to return to their homes.

Gov. Charlie Baker said state and local authorities were investigating but it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers, acknowledging the "massive inconvenience" for those displaced by the explosions.

He said hundreds of gas technicians were going house-to-house to ensure each was safe, and declared a state of emergency for the affected area so the state could take over recovery efforts.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurised but said investigators were still examining what happened.

Capturing the mounting sense of frustration, Democratic U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton tweeted that he had called the utility's president several times with no response. "Everyone wants answers. And we deserve them," Moulton said.

The Massachusetts' gas pipeline system is among the oldest in the country, as much as 157 years old in some places, according to the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group.

Columbia Gas had announced earlier Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighbourhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions happened.

It was not clear whether work was happening there Thursday, and a spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment.

At least one story of heroism emerged from the ashes: that of Lawrence police officer Ivan Soto. His house burned nearly to the ground, but after rushing home to check on his family and warn his neighbors to evacuate, he went back on patrol.

"He actually stayed on duty even though his house was burning down" neighbour Christel Nazario told The Associated Press. "I don't know how he did it."

The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 40 kilometres north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border. Lawrence, the largest of them, is a majority Latino city with a population of about 80,000.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera reassured immigrants who might not be living in his city legally that they had nothing to fear.

"Do not be afraid. Stay in the light. We will support you and your family," Rivera said at a news conference Friday, speaking in English and Spanish. "Lawrence is one community."

Authorities said all of the fires had been extinguished overnight and the situation was stabilizing. But Rivera criticised the gas utility for poor communications and accused the company of "hiding from the problem."

On Thursday, Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield described the unfolding scene as "Armageddon."

"There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see pillars of smoke in front of me from the town of Andover," he told reporters.

Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to be torn apart by blasts.

Brenda Charest stood anxiously on her front porch while a crew checked her undamaged home before giving her the all-clear to return Friday. On Thursday, she had come home to a hissing sound in her basement and a strong odor of natural gas.

"We took off. I said, 'Pack up, we're out of here,'" said Charest, who went with her 93-year old father and cat to a relative's home. "It was scary. We didn't know anything."

Columbia Gas was sued in 2014 after a strip club was destroyed in a natural gas explosion.

The November 2012 explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts, was caused when a Columbia employee accidentally punctured a gas line while probing for a leak.

The blast leveled the Scores Gentleman's Club, injuring about 20 people and damaging dozens of other buildings. The club owner and the gas company eventually settled the case.

Gas explosions have claimed lives and destroyed property around the U.S. in recent years.

In 2016, a buildup of natural gas triggered an explosion and fire that killed seven people in apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland.

In 2014, a gas explosion in New York City's East Harlem neighbourhood killed eight people and injured about 50.

Consolidated Edison later agreed to pay $153 million to settle charges after the state's Public Service Commission found it had violated state safety regulations. A gas leak had been reported before that blast.

A 2011 natural gas explosion killed five people in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and that state's largest gas utility was fined by regulators, who called the company's safety record "downright alarming."

As investigators worked to pinpoint the cause of a series of dramatic natural gas explosions, Charlie Baker toured the neighbourhood where an 18-year-old was killed by a falling chimney. Source: Associated Press

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The mystery of the purple orange solved in Brisbane

A sharpened knife has been revealed as the culprit in the mystery of an orange that turned purple in Brisbane earlier this month.

Resident Neti Moffitt asked for an investigation after slices of an orange she cut up for her two-year-old son turned purple hours later.

Pieces he'd sucked on, and uneaten pieces Ms Moffitt had left on the kitchen bench, all turned part-purple.

"It looks like someone's dipped it on an ink pad, which I guarantee you we haven't," Ms Moffitt told the ABC at the time.

A Queensland Health officer took the discoloured orange slices, a knife used to cut it, a sharpener that had been used on it recently and other items for forensic testing.

Scientists have now revealed the discolouration was due to a natural reaction between the fruit and the sharpened knife, the BBC reports. 

Queensland Health's chief chemist, Stewart Carswell, said numerous tests were conducted to determine the cause of the colour change.

The results revealed that anthocyanins - a naturally occurring antioxidant in oranges - had reacted with iron particles from the newly sharpened blade, he said.

"We see samples that range from blood, urine, water, soil, fish and foodstuffs. So to have an orange come through was really different for our team." 

The Queensland government said it had assured the family the orange was not a health risk.

Following the incident, Ms Moffitt found one other case on the internet of an orange turning purple, also in Queensland in 2015, the ABC reported.

A Nine News report at the time had said forensic testing had ruled out artificial colouring, and no iodine was found.

One of the slices of orange that turned purple after being cut open. Source: ABC/ Neti Moffitt

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Virginia suspends new policy barring women visiting inmates from wearing tampons, menstrual cups

Virginia is suspending a newly introduced policy that would have barred women who visit inmates at state prisons from wearing tampons or menstrual cup.

Secretary of Public and Homeland Security Safety Brian Moran said today on Twitter that he had ordered an "immediate suspension until further review."

The abrupt about-face comes a day after widespread media coverage of state prison officials' plan to ban tampons starting next month as a way to prevent contraband from being smuggled into prisons.

Moran said he understands the worries about contraband, but added that "a number of concerns have been raised about the new procedure."

"I feel it appropriate to immediately suspend the newly developed policy until a more thorough review of its implementation and potential consequences are considered," Moran said.

Inmate advocates have been sharply critical of the now-suspended policy, saying it violates the privacy rights of female visitors.

ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Gastanaga said the policy should be permanently put to rest rather than simply suspended.

And Phyllis Randall, a former chairwoman of the state Board of Corrections, sent Moran a letter Tuesday saying the policy "represents a major systemic failure and an admission" that Moran and Department of Corrections Director Harold Clark "have lost the ability to effectively keep contraband out of Virginia's prisons."

Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Kinney previously said that the agency had consulted with the state Attorney General's Office about how to implement the policy and "it was decided that facilities would offer pads to women who are wearing tampons while visiting a prison so the tampons don't appear as possible contraband on a body scan."

She said that when potential contraband is seen on a body scan, visitors are offered the choice of a strip search or leaving the prison without visiting with an inmate. She said at the time that the new policy "aims to help visitors avoid that altogether."

"Offenders in Virginia have died of drug overdoses while inside our prisons. It's our job to keep the offenders and staff as safe as we can," Kinney said.

Close-up of male feet in chains
Source: istock.com

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Two men jailed over fatal beating of Melbourne Airbnb guest who owed rent

An Australian judge sentenced two men to prison today over the fatal beating of their Airbnb guest who owed rent.

The guest, Ramis Jonuzi, 36, was killed at a rented house in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton East on October 25 last year.

Housemates Ryan Charles Smart, 38, and Craig Jonathon Levy, 37, each pleaded guilty in the Victoria state Supreme Court to his manslaughter after murder charges were downgraded.

Smart must serve a minimum six years of a nine-year sentence. Levy was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison and must serve at least 4 1/2 years.

A third housemate, Jason Colton, will stand trial next year for Jonuzi's murder. He faces a potential life sentence in prison if convicted.

Jonuzi had been renting a room in the trio's home through the house-sharing website for a few days and extended his stay to a week.

He was asked to leave the day he died after failing to pay $A210 in owed rent, according to prosecution facts accepted by defense lawyers.

An argument erupted about the unpaid money after Jonuzi packed up to leave. Jonuzi was kicked and punched in the living room until he lost consciousness.

Levy helped carry him outside then used a phone to have Jonuzi check his bank balance and confirm it contained just $6, before the attack continued. Jonuzi cried and apologized as he was beaten.

"For some of the attack, Mr. Jonuzi was unconscious on the ground, for all of it he was helpless," Justice Andrew Tinney said.

A preliminary court hearing in May was told that Levy called police to remove Jonuzi from the house, but officers arrived to find Jonuzi lying face down in chocolate cake in the front yard and with blood around his nose and eyes.

Police could not revive him.

An autopsy found Jonuzi died from "compression of the neck and blunt-force trauma to the head."

Novi Sad, Serbia - March 24, 2016: Close-up of an unrecognizable woman using the Airbnb App on her Lenovo A916 Android smartphone in a car. Login screen with Facebook and Google sign up options. Airbnb is a service for people to list, find, and rent lodging. It currently has over 1,500,000 listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries.
Airbnb (file picture). Source: istock.com


Girl, 4, and father in hospital after WWII bomb explodes in New South Wales backyard

A four-year-old girl and a man have been left with shrapnel wounds after a World War II-era ordnance exploded at their home near Newcastle, New South Wales.

Emergency services were called to a home at Anna Bay in Port Stephens about 10pm on Monday night to find the man, 37, and girl with non-life-threatening lacerations.

NSW Police Chief Inspector Brian Tracey said a WWII "ordnance" had exploded sending shrapnel into the man and girl's lower limbs.

"The four-year-old girl is undergoing surgery now for shrapnel wounds to her leg and hip," he told reporters at Raymond Terrace yesterday.

It's unclear if the man needs surgery at this stage.

Insp Tracey said the man had recovered the explosive from a nearby beach and may have narrowly escaped serious injury or death.

"The gentleman is very, very lucky he's actually picked it up at the beach and taken it home," he said. "It could have exploded any time."

Police and army specialists removed several items from the home and rendered them safe but an explosives detection dog remains on scene.

Insp Tracey could not confirm what type of items were found in the man's home but said there were enough "to fill the bottom of a bucket".

He said it wasn't uncommon for ordnances and unexploded bombs to wash up on the beach north of Newcastle, with some of the area historically used as a military dumping ground.

"If it looks like a bomb and it's old rusty metal don't touch it," he said, urging the public to notify police who will send in the bomb squad to deal with the threat.

The man is yet to be interviewed by police.

The dad’s actions have become the focus of a police investigation. Source: Nine


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