Lawrence – It started just after 4pm. Thursday, with a single call for a basement fire – an unobtrusive event, on a seemingly inconspicuous afternoon. A minute or two later, emergency dispatchers north of Boston received another call for another fire. Then half a dozen more in quick succession, all within five minutes, each reporting a basement fire or a strong gas odor.
"We have … several roads," said a voice on the radio, loud fire and EMS records. "Let the gas company react immediately."
At 16:20 it was clear: something dangerous happened. But nobody knew what it was or when or how it would end.
When the calls came faster, the fire departments in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence tried to answer. "We have a home explosion that is fully balanced," came a report at 4:30. "I have a trap in the house." As the incoming calls rose in their hundreds and the number of working fires multiplied by a dozen, someone issued a reminder, "Everyone stays calm."
Then, shortly after 4:30 am, the authorities, under dangerous public safety, ordered the evacuation of the Lawrence police radio channel: "All right, bring out every civilian in the area, all civilians, get them out of their homes." Let's go . "
It was an overwhelming response to an unimaginable series of events that happened with shocking speed and complete lack of warning. Hundreds of firefighters and other forces responded on Thursday to more than 80 fires and explosions in the Merrimack Valley, a wave of chaos that killed one man and destroyed at least 25 more, destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands of residents to their homes.
In devastated quarters that have been undergoing months of recovery, they also left questions as the residents struggled to understand how and why their lives were turned upside down.
In Christine Cohne's house, on a quiet, leafy street in the so-called Library District of North Andover, Thursday afternoon meant football practice.
Cohne said she was home with her husband and two children, and went to the field around 4:00 pm when her 11-year-old son ran into the house.
"Help, help, Rosemary's house is on fire!" He screamed as his frightened mother hurried to call 911.
Outside, the whole street smelled of smoke, said Cohne, not a wood-fire scent, but "a dirty smell, dark brown smoke billowing from the chimney."
Her neighbor, Rosemary Smedile-a real estate agent and a member of Selectmen's North Andover Board-had been away from her apartment on Greene Street for nearly twenty minutes and had been running errands, she said as her cell phone rang with alarming news.
"There's smoke from your chimney," one of her neighbors told her.
Panic went through her. "I'll be right back," Smedile said, quickly hanging up and dialing the emergency call. But the phone system, overwhelmed, would not let her through.
Desperately she scrolled through her contacts and called the fire chief directly on his cell phone.
"Could you please call the department and tell them that my house is on fire?" She asked.
When half a dozen fire trucks came together and firefighters hurried to rescue Smedile's dog and bird, fire was burning in neighboring Lawrence. Host David Lee ran through his six-story apartment building on Springfield Street after a fire broke out, threw doors to the units and warned the tenants.
"It got intense from there," Lee said. "The flames went fast."
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A mile away, in his house on Chickering Road in Lawrence, Matt Halloran prepared to help a neighbor.
The woman had asked him to repair her radiant heater, which she had said had started by itself and would not switch off. Halloran agreed. He leaned forward and pulled on his shoes as an explosion shook his street and rang in his ears.
Outside, he found a chaotic scene. The explosion had shaken a nearby house, and the walls and chimney had collapsed, catching the young men who had been sitting in a car in the driveway. The neighbors later learned that one of them, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, had died from injuries sustained in the collapse.
Fear and uncertainty subsided as the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles lit up the dusk and circling helicopters swayed above them. When Halloran's wife and children in New Hampshire wanted to stay with a relative, they carried the fickle feeling.
"My wife keeps calling me and asking," Are you alright? Are you all right? ", He said.
At five o'clock in the afternoon, the State Troopers had dismounted and drifted around scenes in the area. In Andover, the fire department broke their 10-alarm call, the maximum level when nearly 20 fires burned at the same time, and the police in North Andover sent out an urgent city-wide text: Residents in buildings served by gas pipelines should get out immediately.
At his house on Sylvester Street in Lawrence, Bill Auriemma heard someone banging on the door. When he opened it, a firefighter stood there.
"He said," You have to turn off your gas and you have to get out, "Auriemma said." I went to turn on the light and he said: & # 39; Do not touch the switch because of the spark! & # 39;
One and a half kilometers from Stevens Street, Luis Abreu had fallen asleep after coming home from work. He woke up at around six o'clock. He panicked into the smell of gas and hurried out of the house in panic just as his fiancee hurried to tell him that neighborhood houses were going up in flames.
Just before 7 pm, to keep people out of the area, the state police turned off several elevators on Interstate 495. The traffic was blocked as evacuating residents tried to make themselves safer.
National Grid, which powers the region, shut off power to its customers for security reasons. Houses, shops, restaurants and traffic lights went dark. Policemen led the traffic with flashlights at intersections. Cruisers crawled through the neighborhoods with flashing blue lights as some residents camped in their cars to find a power source.
Lawrence's Dean Finocchiaro was sitting in his car, charging his equipment – a computer, a phone, and a row of LED headlights – and listening to the radio to collect news of the event.
Some did not evacuate, fearing that the riots of the night could boil over, leading to looting or worse.
"I'm worried that people will do stupid things," said William Hartung, 49, a subcontractor in Lawrence.
A crescent moon rose high above the dark city, now a dark silhouette beside the Merrimack River. Thousands were evicted, many in shelters to sleep in the restless silence.
When Friday morning came, that brought few answers and more uncertainty.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators began investigating the cause of the accident, considering a possible overpressure of a Columbia Gas gas pipeline that has served some 50,000 customers in and around Lawrence and upgraded their equipment in the area. But there was not a word about when it would be safe to return home.
At about 9 am, a city official in North Andover sent a tweet warning residents that two Columbia officials would soon be available in a downtown shopping mall. Several dozen residents came by and waited more than an hour, then sent questions to the officials when they finally arrived.
The residents received few answers. James Hassam, a retired firefighter who had gone door-to-door the day before and helped his neighbors in North Andover shut off their gas pipes after the fires broke out, reprimanded the officials for being ill prepared.
"I really think you should have come here with more information," he told the representatives of Columbia, who offered to take the contact information of the residents and return to them.
As the police went door-to-door in the affected neighborhoods, shutting off the gas in abandoned homes, city buses arrived at shelters and took some residents into their homes to retrieve some items.
In a homeless shelter at Arlington Middle School in North Lawrence, displaced residents ate breakfast with sausage and eggs in the school cafeteria. Celia Monty, 72, was sitting at a table with her son, Donald Monty Jr., 53, saying she was in no hurry to go home, into a house that could blow her up.
"I feel safe right now," she said.
In her handbag were two framed pictures taken from an office on Thursday night to evacuate her husband. But Monty had hardly done anything else. Her dog, a Pomeranian named Charlie Brown, was in another shelter where pets were allowed. And she still did not know how long they would be away from home.
The city grew in frustration when the early search for answers failed. In the midst of all these tensions, some distressed residents stumbled upon unexpected gifts.
With no power supply left, the shops on South Union Street in Lawrence were largely closed. But at Carlos Cakes bakery and flower shop, owner Carlos Alba, 47, was trying to figure out what to do with his cake, which would go without cooling.
With few options – and a certain joy – he set up two folding tables in front of his shop, made the cakes and began to give them away.
"Free cake for everyone!" He shouted. "Take the whole cake – no problem!"
One after the other, grateful residents – some carrying suitcases with the few belongings they had taken from their homes – stopped and added a cake to their load. A woman paused to kiss Alba on the cheek. She was overjoyed to find some sweetness in the midst of so much heartache.
As the afternoon passed, Ketcy Rivera, 32, walked across Joseph W. Casey Bridge in the direction of North Lawrence, back to her car, wondering where she and her two young sons would sleep that night.
They had stayed in a hotel on Thursday and had returned home on Friday afternoon to get a bag of belongings. But now she had no hotel reservation – only the hope that a plan would come together.
Their boys, five-year-old Ricardo and three-year-old Josiah, had been asking them all day, "Why can not we go home?" She did not have a good answer.
"It's a terrible nightmare," Ricardo said.