Not long after that call went out I was jarred out of my seat by the urgency and bewilderment in the voices of the firefighters as they called out another fire, and then another, then two at a time, then three.
I’ve been covering news for more than two decades and chasing police and fire calls even longer than that, and the only time I have ever heard that kind of sheer panic … almost terror … in the voice of a public safety official over the scanner was the night Woburn Police Officer Jack Maguire called in while he was being murdered. From the minute that first call went out I could tell this wasn’t a routine fire. What I didn’t know, was that this would turn out to be the biggest disaster in the Merrimack Valley in my lifetime.
At first I manned the office and called for our news spotters to start fanning out across South Lawrence to get photos, videos and any information they could get as the calls for fire and explosions continued to come in, one after the other.
“Farnham Street we have another one” … “We have two on Salem Street, and at least one, maybe two more on Kingston.”
It seems like forever, but it was only about 30 minutes before I decided to pack up my gear and head into the city from my North Andover office.
Durso Ave, Mount Vernon, Brookfield St., Jefferson … the calls kept coming and it seemed like it wasn’t going to stop.
As I approached the Lawrence line at Mass Ave the police officers recognized me and let me past the blockade they had already set up.
All of South Lawrence was now cordoned off at every entrance, nobody in from any direction. From almost the second I passed the police roadblocks and made my way to Salem Street I could smell an ugly odor of wood smoke, mixed with what seemed like walnuts, and maybe rotten eggs.
It was eerie.
People were grabbing their belongings and fleeing their homes; elderly residents getting help from strangers, good Samaritans giving assistance to the disabled without being asked.
The people of Lawrence had no idea what was about to happen but in true Lawrence fashion almost everyone involved was reaching out to neighbors and friends instead of just being concerned with themselves.
ON THE FRONT LINES, “IT WAS HELL”
As Lawrence firefighters tried to tackle the dozens of calls coming in, pulling people out of burning buildings, some exploding, some collapsing, the chief in neighboring Methuen (Chief Tim Sheehy) was also listening to all of this on the scanner and without missing a beat ordered all his firefighters into Lawrence.
“I wasn’t going to wait for them to ask. They were in trouble, big trouble” he told me later. “They needed help and my guys responded immediately. I was so proud of them. They were amazing. We were the first outside department coming into Lawrence and we had no idea what we were walking into. It was hell; that’s the only way I can describe it. It was hell.”
It wasn’t long before every off duty firefighter was called in from every surrounding community.
Then the hair on the back of my neck stood at attention and my heart dropped faster than that feeling you get on a roller coaster as the unthinkable happened.
“We need an ambulance we have a firefighter down.”
Hearing “firefighter down” went right through me like a stab in the heart. Seconds later it came again. “We have two more down”.
I was scared for the first time in years. I was scared for the firefighters and the cops running into the exploding homes. I was scared for the poor people they were trying to save. And I was even more scared that the explosions and fires seemed like they were never going to stop.
I often get mocked on Facebook when I say firefighters and police officers are heroes. Most people have no idea the seriousness of what our first responders deal with in the moment when a tragedy strikes. They have no idea what responding to such events does to their psychological and emotional health.
These were true heroes. Running into exploding homes while everyone else is running out. Dodging falling rafters and ceilings, carrying children out to their crying parents, and many, many of them overheard saying to their fellow police and firefighters “What the HELL IS GOING ON?”
While the rest of us were getting news updates on social media and television, the first responders didn’t have time to stop and find out why this was all happening. They only knew that there were more fires to put out, more people to rescue, and an endless list of other homes going up in smoke as they struggled to put out the fire they were tending to.
AN EERIE WEEKEND
By the time the calls of new fires started to die down it was past sundown and most of South Lawrence was completely evacuated. Only cops, firefighters, EMTs and utility workers were allowed into that section of the city. Once it became completely dark I was lucky that the state and local police let me stay in what we were calling “the hot zone” of South Lawrence.
I went live on Facebook and drove through the abandoned neighborhoods as dozens of State Police units crisscrossed every single neighborhood in a grid like fashion simultaneously. It was quite a site to see. And it was so pitch black that every time I turned a corner I had to slow my car to a crawl, because even with my high beams on I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of my car.
Some neighbors refused to leave and found me streaming live on Facebook asking if I could come by their location. Others who had evacuated outside the hot zone asked me to drive down their street to see if their homes were still there. Some worried that their pets were still inside. I even looked for some lady’s cat.
Others who came on the live feed wanted me to drive to their family members home who had decided to stay behind. There was only one incident of looting that we saw on Beacon Street, but police were only seconds behind them and put a stop to it right away.
By sun up I hadn’t been to bed. I had come back to the office which now had no gas and was officially part of the evacuation area in North Andover. I used backup batteries and hot spot on my phone for internet connections and it was then that I learned that this wasn’t just Lawrence, but that 30 or more homes went up in Andover and 13 homes exploded in North Andover.
With sunup turning to early Friday morning hundreds of people flooded social media trying to coordinate relief for people who fled their homes, some with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
We saw community activists like Debo Brown and Kelly coordinating donation efforts and Joe Zingales from Century 21 in Methuen loading and unloading trucks with his entire office staff. Politicians like Geoff Diehl, Myra Ortiz, Ana Levy, and Joe Espinola had taken off their campaign buttons, peeled off their campaign T-shirts and jumped into assembly lines of people unloading cases of water, food, diapers and clothing. Hundreds of volunteers poured into Lawrence and brought donations to the House of Mercy, Daybreak, the Lawrence Senior Center, the Parthum School, the Arlington School, the Elks Club, shelters and donation areas were set up all over the city. It was the most orderly uncoordinated effort I had ever seen. There was no preparation or meetings, people just showed up, found a way to help and did what they could.
COLUMBIA GAS MIA
With all the firetrucks in Lawrence from all over New England, state police and local police from all over the Valley, volunteers and utility workers from each corner of Massachusetts, the one thing we didn’t see was even one worker from Columbia Gas. Not one. Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera called out Columbia Gas live on TV, pointing out the disgrace of absence and lack of communication from minute one.
A full 24 hours later we still had no help from Columbia and the inadequate press statement by the Columbia Gas official only made it worse.
THE RECOVERY DISASTER
Nearly a full month after the tragedy of the Columbia Gas Disaster most people still have no gas. That means no heat, no cooking, and no showers. Columbia opened insurance claim centers for those affected and hired subcontractors and other companies to replace gas pipelines and try to restore service. The National Guard was called in to help coordinate getting food and water to victims and first responders.
State Representative Diana DiZoglio said that even now Columbia Gas is not responding adequately to local officials. “I’m happy they are picking up steam as far as the restoration of gas services are concerned,” DiZoglio told me.
“However, they need to step it up big time regarding communication and overall customer service efforts. As many residents have been expressing to me, they are still getting different stories from different claims adjusters depending on the day.”
DiZoglio said she and her colleagues were so concerned about lack of answers from Columbia Gas that she and the Merrimack Valley delegation on Beacon Hill sent a letter to Columbia expressing their many concerns about victims with no help and no answers “and we still have not received a response from Columbia Gas or Eversource. This is completely unacceptable. They have had plenty of time to get back to us and they just haven’t.”
“So, when residents call me to express their enormous frustration that Columbia Gas isn’t responding to them, I want them to know that I hear them and share their frustration because Columbia Gas is treating the legislative delegation no differently. It’s a total breakdown of communication across the board on every level. But, I can say I am really proud of local mayors and town managers, volunteers, the firefighters, my God…. and front line workers for doing a tremendous job. While Columbia gas is ignoring us, they stepped up to the plate any and every time they could.”
FIRE CHIEF MORIARTY ON THE RECOVERY EFFORT
“It’s an ongoing process” he said with frustration in his voice. “It was very taxing in the beginning, the tension and pressure of the immediate stuff is over now, but every day it’s something. We are still dealing with this every day. Everyone is working well together at the fire stations; Columbia Gas is making sure everyone has what they need here.”
“Our guys are working extensively to make sure everything remains safe. We are covering the trailer parks. We have increased fire protection on the south-side. We are inspecting the shelters daily to make sure things are going well down there. We have extra crews when they are purging the lines, which is almost every day. We are manning full crews. Everyone here in the department has stepped up, they are real heroes. They were really heroic that day, what they did, what they handled with such limited resources.”
I asked the chief how he was dealing with the funding issues of having so many more men on duty every day, and all the overtime that they must have.
Columbia gas is reimbursing us for all of it,” he said. “They are giving us the equipment we need. They have agreed to pay for a lot.”
While thousands of residents are still affected, hundreds of businesses were also affected by the power and gas outage in South Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. Some have already gone broke and will never reopen. Others are struggling to borrow money and recover from untold losses, hoping they can reopen and hoping they can regain their customers to move forward.
Mike Agricola, owner of Salvatore’s Restaurant on Merrimack Street in Lawrence told me “This disaster crippled me.”
“We had a slow year last year and things were just starting to pick up, we were just starting to do well again when this happened. Now it will take forever to catch up. I decided to pay my workers through the outage because they have mortgages to pay and families to feed, and it wasn’t their fault they couldn’t work.”
Agricola threw away thousands of dollars of food when they were finally let back into the building a full week later.
“I still have vendors to pay, rent to pay, salaries, the expenses and the losses are incredible. Even if we stay busy now that we are open, and even with whatever we get from the insurance company it’s going to be a long time to get back to where we need to be. But, I thank God. We were so lucky. Some businesses will never reopen. Some people lost their homes and everything they own. That family lost their son. So, with what we lost, and it was a lot, I still consider myself lucky. So many people have it so much worse.”
And that my friends, is the real spirit of Lawrence.