Facing the Fire

Deborah Venuti on January 7th, 2019

Life in the Aftermath of the Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions

I’ll say first off that I wasn’t home on Sept. 13, 2018. I wasn’t home on the afternoon that houses in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover started catching fire and the air filled with black smoke that could be seen from Boston. I wasn’t home when the sound of sirens from police and fire vehicles could be heard for miles; when fire departments from surrounding towns were told to “send everyone you’ve got” because so many houses had caught on fire within a half hour that there weren’t enough local fire trucks to respond to all of them.

One young man was killed, several buildings burned to the ground and about 25 people were injured. Immediate evacuations were ordered in the three communities, and by the next day several thousand residents were displaced. Roads leading to routes 495, 125 and 93 became parking lots, adding to the fear, shock and frustration as people tried to get home, tried to locate their children, tried to make sense of what was happening. The smell of gas permeated the air.

I flew home on Friday, Sept. 14, and tried to drive into Lawrence, encountering multiple police barricades and detours. In addition to living in the city, I work for an agency there that serves people with developmental and physical disabilities, some of whom live on their own. Since Thursday night, I had been receiving phone calls from my supervisor saying that some of the people we serve couldn’t be located. Case managers and supervisors were in their cars all around the Merrimack Valley trying to evacuate our clients, but they couldn’t get into Lawrence, Andover or North Andover, which were blocked off to traffic.

As soon as the evacuations were ordered, police started going door to door to check on and evacuate people, and emergency shelters were opened. Lawrence bus drivers, who knew they could be risking their lives, were organized to transport residents to shelters. Gas and electricity were cut off to the area. On Thursday night, all was in darkness. 

The roads from North Andover into Lawrence were either deserted or backed up at the detours as I drove into the city, my packed suitcase still in the car. I was looking for two individuals we hadn’t been able to contact. I explained to police officers at the barricades that I was trying to evacuate disabled individuals.
I navigated a maze of side streets until I reached the apartment of one of our clients, whom I will call E. 

I checked in with my supervisor, who told me that she had reached E’s nephew, who had traveled down from his home in New Hampshire but was stuck in traffic and hadn’t been able to get into the city. He could take in E if I could get her to him. 

  • Photos by Deborah A. Venuti.

Because the electricity was shut off, the main door lock to E’s building was open. A few residents were still there, either because they had pets or didn’t understand the gravity of what was happening. The lobby was mostly dark, just a little daylight filtering through the windows. I knew if I didn’t get E evacuated, she would spend another night alone in the dark. The elevator and air conditioners also weren’t working. It was about 75 degrees outside and warmer and stuffier in the building. Emergency alerts to evacuate kept sounding on my phone as I went up to the second floor. Sirens from police and fire vehicles were audible a few blocks away. I felt a real sense of urgency to get out of the city as soon as we could.

I knocked loudly on E’s apartment door, and when she opened it, I could see that she had been calmly eating dinner. She gave me a big hug as if nothing unusual was happening. I explained that we had to leave right away because we didn’t know when the power would come back on. I told her that her nephew would meet us on Water Street and that she’d stay with him for a while. E packed her bag while I emptied the refrigerator of perishable food. We made sure that she included her medicines and toiletries, then we hustled out of the building and drove down South Broadway to Water Street, driving past small groups of people carrying backpacks and supplies, headed for the shelters. There was a steadier flow of people crossing the Route 28 bridge over the Merrimack River into north Lawrence. I was so relieved to see E’s nephew in the parking lot of the Boys & Girls Club and to know she’d be safe.

All houses had to be individually cleared and the gas turned off before residents were allowed back in. Anything that ran on natural gas — furnaces, boilers, stoves, clothes dryers — was scorched and unusable. I was lucky to have an electric stove at home. I bought a water bucket heater and an outdoor shower hookup online so I could bathe in my home instead of at one of the local YMCAs, high schools or fitness centers that had opened their doors for people who needed to shower. The Andover YMCA ran out of hot water at least once; I didn’t get my hot water back until Oct. 26, over a month after the explosions. 

We know now that the explosions were caused by high-pressure natural gas being released into low-pressure gas lines. About 10,000 dwellings in the three municipalities were affected. Nearly 45 miles of gas mains and 5,000 service lines had to be dug up and replaced. This part of the restoration project was completed on Oct. 30, but lines and meters to individual buildings, as well as appliances, were still being gradually replaced. 

According to WCVB reporter David Bienick, approximately 2,500 residents were still without heat or hot water as of November 22, Thanksgiving Day, when the temperature fell to 12 degrees. According to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), 192 of the trailers that were set up as temporary housing were still occupied, down from 305 on Nov. 14. Five trailer sites were open, three in Lawrence, one in Andover and one in North Andover and about 825 people were still living in trailers. Many residents were still in hotels and others were battled the cold in their homes.

As of December 19, natural gas service had been restored to 98 percent of residential and business customers. Over 5,000 service lines were restored and replaced. Heat and hot water were back on, but streets and sidewalks still needed to be repaired. This work may stretch to October 2019. There is still a long road ahead for some residents in the Merrimack Valley.  

For those in need of assistance or looking to contribute to relief efforts, mvm would like to direct you to the following critical resources:

We Are Lawrence was launched in 2012, and its website, WeAreLawrence.org, provides a centralized location for information pertaining to the explosions and recovery efforts in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. The website is updated hourly and includes progress reports, an events calendar and a resource guide.

The Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund at the Essex County Community Foundation is another comprehensive resource. Learn more at ECCF.org.

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