‘This Is Not A Drill:’ The Merrimack Valley On Fire, One Year Later

 

BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — “It looked like Armageddon,” Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield said the evening of September 13, 2018. 

A series of gas explosions and fires erupted across the Merrimack Valley that afternoon, destroying buildings and homes in Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence. 

It became a tragedy that killed 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, injured several others, and rocked the affected communities for months to come. 

Around 4 p.m. on that Thursday afternoon, “high-pressure natural gas was released into a low-pressure gas distribution system,” according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The pressure on that day was reported to be 12 times higher than what it should have been.

The distribution system was owned and run by Columbia Gas, whose handling of the emergency has been widely criticized due to their lack of communication. 

The system was old, originally installed in the early 1900s, with some updates over the years. However, it wasn’t equipped to handle the high-pressure gas. 

The explosions “destroyed as many as 80 homes and buildings” and “caused upwards of 70 fires,” Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren wrote in a letter to Columbia Gas and their parent company, NiSource, following the disaster. 

The senators wanted answers as to what went wrong, and if “the company was sufficiently prepared to respond to an incident of this magnitude.” 

In the midst of a long recovery, some residents couldn’t go back to their homes for months.

A year after that tragic September day, WBZ NewsRadio’s Karyn Regal spoke with officials and residents about how the event unfolded—and what’s happened since.

Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions Anniversary

The home on Chickering Road where Leonel Rondon was killed. (National Transportation Safety Board)

‘This Is Not A Drill’

Gas could be smelled in the streets. Plumes of smoke were seen coming from homes. One officer in Lawrence pointed to towering stacks of smoke coming from Lawrence and said, “See those? Drive away from those.” 

North Andover Police Lt. E.J. Foulds was working in his office as the calls came in, the first one for a house fire on Main Street.

“It was chaos for about 20 minutes to half an hour,” he said. “We were finally able to kind of piece together the affected area, at which point we set up a command post with the fire department and just started responding.”

Andover Fire Chief Mansfield remembered traffic stopped on Route 28 as people walked in the middle of the road wondering what had happened. 

WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche, who lives in the Merrimack Valley, called in to WBZ NewsRadio to describe the happenings in his neighborhood. He said he and his neighbors got reverse 911 calls asking them shut off their gas and evacuate their homes. 

“It’s kind of a strange scene,” Roche said. “No one really knows what to do.” 

Dozens were injured as homes caught fire and exploded across the Merrimack Valley. 

On Chickering Road in Lawrence, Leonel Rondon was killed when a home exploded, sending a chimney flying onto his car. The 18-year-old had just gotten his driver’s license. 

Inside the home, 21-year-old Shakira Figueroa was severely injured, and two of her family members were hurt. 

Lawrence Police Chief Roy Vasque said the scene was “like something out of a movie,” with “debris lying all around.” 

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘What in the world is going on? Is it terrorism? What’s happening,’” he said.

Across the communities, at least 21 people were injured and taken to hospitals. That figure includes two firefighters; seven additional firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

At least five homes were completely destroyed, according to the NTSB report, and 131 structures were damaged.

Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty responded—and didn't go home for three days.

"I've had different-sized incidents throughout my career, but this was different," he said. "We didn't have the power to turn off the gas, like I can turn off the faucet. Somebody else had to do that."

As crews responded to multiple fires and explosions, the state's Fire Mobilization Plan was put into effect—calling in extra help from other areas of Massachusetts as well as from New Hampshire and Maine. 

"We had a ladder truck here from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, it was an incredible response," Moriarty said. "You'd see all these trucks just pulling in, and it was awesome. It's like going to a fire truck parade. It was awesome to see all these resources show up in an organized fashion and pull in to the staging area, drop off their paperwork, get their assignment, and go."

Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions Anniversary

Gov. Baker addresses the media following gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley on Thursday night. (Methuen Police)

A Lack Of Communication

Columbia Gas was heavily criticized for their response to the crisis. It took the company five hours to put out an initial statement, which was blasted on Twitter. 

“Columbia Gas crews are currently responding to reports of multiple fires in Lawrence,” the company wrote on Twitter. “Our thoughts are with everyone affected by today’s incident.” 

“This is a little bit bigger than an incident! And what about everyone in Andover and North Andover,” one Twitter user responded. 

 

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera described the confusion and growing anger among his residents.

"Neighbors who watched their houses blown up next to them, fires next to them, have no understanding of why that happened, or who's doing what to fix it, want to know what we're doing about it," he said. "This is real people with real issues."

At a press conference in the early morning hours of September 14, Gov. Charlie Baker said Columbia Gas’s response was, taking a slight pause, “adequate.”

Baker soon realized the company had promised more than they could deliver. 

“In the morning, the mayor and I took a walk through Lawrence, and I took a walk with the two town managers through Andover and North Andover, and we got back together at 2 p.m., and we looked at each other, we said, ‘This isn’t happening, what Columbia said was going to be happening today is not happening’.”

The governor took action, making an official disaster declaration and transferring the responsibility for the response to Eversource. 

Eversource, based in New England, had more crews and assets readily available in the area to help. In the next few days, they inspected every affected home to the point where officials felt comfortable turning the power back on. 

Since the explosions, officials have been highly critical of Columbia Gas’s response.

“When we first got word of this incident, the least informed and the last to act has been Columbia Gas,” Mayor Rivera said.

Columbia Gas Massachusetts President Mark Kempic is clear about his company’s failings. 

"Communication is obviously extremely important to us, and we didn’t do the job that we should have been able to perform," he said. 

Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions Anniversary

A Long Recovery

Service was shut off to 3,230 customers across the three affected communities, and nearly 8,000 people were forced out of their homes. Power was shut off, too, and it took days of house-to-house inspections to get it turned back on—until then, streets were lit at night by the lights from police, emergency, and utility crews.

As cold weather approached, officials rushed to secure housing for those who couldn't cook or heat their homes without gas. That temporary housing included 3,000 hotel rooms, 150 apartments, and 360 travel trailers.

But the cold took its toll. Families staying in temporary trailers on Lawrence's O'Connell Common were affected by a November snowstorm that froze pipes, compromising their water supply. 

Some residents chose to stay in their homes, staying under blankets and taking cold showers as temperatures inside their homes dropped into the 30s.

Columbia Gas finished replacing miles of compromised pipeline at the end of October, but the deadline for gas service to be restored to customers got pushed back from mid-November to mid-December. Columbia Gas distributed roughly 20,000 Thanksgiving meals, provided by Tuscan Kitchen, to those unable to cook in their homes.

Commerce in the three communities was also affected, with businesses also going without gas for months.

At a March open house with Columbia Gas, Lawrence City Council Vice President Jeovanny Rodriguez said he heard from many small businesses in the area that they were hurting. 

“There is [sic] a lot of people, a lot of business owners that are going out of business," he said. "And there are other members of the community that because of the situation, they’re suffering."

Columbia Gas President Kempic admitted that many of the claims agents provided by Columbia Gas to help small businesses were not bilingual to the degree required in the majority-minority city.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said the community worked together and helped each other during this time.  

“We came together as a community in a way that no one really expected. I think that just shows what Lawrence is made of,” Mayor Rivera said. “We have this infrastructure to help each other, always.” 

In May, Columbia Gas reached a settlement to pay $80 million to Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover for repairs to roads and other infrastructure. Then, in July, the company announced a $143 million settlement of nearly all class action lawsuits filed by those affected by the disaster—part of a larger $1 billion that was already dedicated to the victims. 

Columbia Gas also came to a settlement with Leonel Rondon's family, the amount of which remains confidential. As part of that settlement, the company is set to work with Rondon's family to set up a scholarship in the teen's name.

Lawrence Fire Chief Moriarty said that, even though gas service is back and people are back in their homes, the effects are still being felt today. 

"There are still people who haven't got their home done, there are lawsuits, there are boilers and furnaces that are still being replaced, the street work is still being done," the chief said. "We're still feeling the effects of it, and we still have a greater level of caution in our community, or maybe even 'fear' is the right word."

Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions Anniversary

What’s Changed?

On the night of the explosions, Andover Fire Chief Mansfield told reporters that it was, “something I’ve never experienced in my fire service career, and hopefully I don’t have to experience it ever again."

Columbia Gas President Kempic said that the company has made improvements over the last year, including using, “GPS global positioning satellites to get the exact location of the pipes in the roads, all the way up to the outlet side of the meter at the customer’s doorstep.” 

“We will know, not for the next week, not for the next month, but forever, exactly where every meter is, exactly where every customer is,” Kempic said. 

According to Kempic, these updates will help the company communicate with the public better. 

“What we’ve learned in the Merrimack Valley is that we need to have better relationships with the community leaders, with the non-profits, with the media because the media can be a huge benefit — a huge asset — during these times of dire need and in times of situations like this,” Kempic said. 

Kempic said Columbia Gas has people in place to communicate information quickly to the public now.

"What we've done is we've adopted the incident command structure approach, in which everyone has clearly predetermined roles and responsibilities, like a public information officer," Kempic said.

In August, when a house collapsed in Lawrence and affected gas service, Columbia Gas had a public information officer at the scene to talk to reporters—something that had been missing a year ago.

Gov. Charlie Baker touted a number of improvements made in the year since the disaster.

"One of the things we did almost immediately when this whole thing happened was the folks at the Department of Public Utilities brought in an outside entity that had done similar work after a gas explosion in California to take a look at our existing infrastructure, our rules and processes and procedures and policies and personnel, all that stuff, and they made a bunch of recommendations sort of 90, 120 days later," Baker said.

As a result of those recommendations, an engineer is now on every gas pipeline work project.

"They've dramatically increased the number of inspectors they have out there on the job, out in the field, working with folks that are doing work on natural gas lines," the governor said.

As the communities continue to recover, the emotional scars are still there. One resident, Anna, said she may never feel secure. 

“We’re still feeling the fear that at any moment we’re going to go through the same thing again, even though that they’re fixing everything,” she said. “But still, we fear that it will happen again.”

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