LAWRENCE — Dennis Dietrich recalls Aug. 26 as just another warm night under the Central Bridge. Dietrich, a former carpenter who has made the underbelly of the bridge his home for about eight years, had everything he needed: beer, a radio for some tunes, and a campfire.
No one knows how many homeless people chose to sleep outside that night in Lawrence, but the estimates from advocates and homeless range as high as 500 for those who regularly make their beds under bridges, in cars, in parks, and even in dumpsters.
Shortly after 11 p.m. that night, the Lawrence police and fire departments were called by someone who noticed the campfire under the bridge that stretches across the Merrimack River. Dietrich and two other homeless men who were standing by the fire did not object when firefighters extinguished the blaze.
The events that followed — triggered by a homeless person’s attempt to find a comfortable place to sleep — left about 9,000 Verizon customers in Lawrence and surrounding communities without cell or landline phones, cable TV, or Internet service, some for as long as five days.
The firefighters and police were at the encampment just a short time, and after they left, the men restarted their fire. Around midnight, Dietrich emerged from underthe bridge to smoke a cigarette. When he came back, he joined his friends, who had thrown a wicker couch into the fire, sending flames and embers into the air.
At the time, they didn’t know that directly above the campfire – about 20 feet over their heads — a homeless person had cut through a fence and placed a mattress on PVC conduits that held thousands of Verizon cables. Dietrich speculates the conduits served as an improvised boxspring for the mattress.
Looking back on that night, the men believe the campfire’s embers reached the mattress, which quickly caught on fire.
“I don’t know who this person was. I never knew there was a mattress up there. I had no idea,” says Dietrich, who is 60 and says some of his life’s problems can be attributed to a stretch of time in jail, a lack of work, and an affinity for beer.
Dietrich saw the fire, ran to the top of the bridge, and flagged down a Lawrence police officer, who alerted the Fire Department. By 12:20 a.m., police and firefighter were back on the scene under the bridge. The mattress was ablaze, and the heat turned the plastic conduit protecting the fiber-optic wires into a white liquid, burning the wires themselves.
But a high-voltage sign on the entrance to the fence stopped the firefighters in their tracks. National Grid was called, and reported it had no high voltage wiring under the bridge, according to Lawrence Fire Chief Jack Bergeron, who said it took more than an hour to reach Verizon officials, who also confirmed its cables were not high voltage. Verizon does not dispute that it took about an hour to reach the company.
Shortly before 2 a.m., firefighters took about 10 minutes to douse the fire. But the damage had been done. Bergeron said the cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but he confirmed the burning mattress ignited the PVC conduits.
Verizon outages were reported in Lawrence, Andover, North Andover, North Reading, Methuen, and Tewksbury and stretched as far away as Gloucester. The fire also caused police in Tewksbury to lose their phone service for a day, and cut 911 lines to North Andover police for more than 40 hours. In addition, the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Lawrence also lost telecommunication services.
Verizon workers spent the next several days replacing the burned wiring and splicing new cables, and within five days all of the customers had their service back. In recent days, Verizon finished work at the site, and the 24-hour police details to keep homeless people from sleeping under the bridge ended. Verizon spokesman Phil Santoro says the company is creating a plan to secure the site, which is owned by the city of Lawrence and can be accessed by walking down a weed-filled, half-paved road.
“Now that we have met the immediate need to restore service for all of our customers, we are working with local and state officials to determine what measures can and should be taken to safeguard our network,” says Santoro.
So far, Verizon’s security around the site includes a chain-link fence and a newly constructed wooden door — and a padlock — to secure access to the company’s cables that run horizontally below the bridge’s roadway. Meanwhile, Lawrence police and fire officials say they’re in the dark regarding any security plan, and believe it’s just a matter of weeks or even days before the homeless return to their perch under the bridge.
Lawrence Police Chief John Romero says his force, which has shrunk from about 160 to less than 120 in recent years, can’t make the homeless a priority because it’s busy responding to other calls. “Short of assigning someone there all the time, there’s no way we’d be able to keep them out of there,” says Romero, who believes another fire or service disruption could occur if the area is not sealed off.
“Unless the cables are secured in such a way where people can’t access them, intentionally or otherwise, we could conceivably have a repeat incident,” says Romero, who has instructed his officers not to arrest the homeless, and sends them out on cold winter nights to make sure those on the streets don’t freeze to death.
According to Bergeron, there have been 21 fires under the Central Bridge over the last 20 months, the most recent on Sept. 19. He agrees there’s no immediate solution to the problem. “You can chase people out of there in the morning, and if you go back in a couple of hours the people will all be there,” says Bergeron.
In recent years, the recession has been cruel to hardscrabble communities like Lawrence. The schools went broke last year, when the state took control of the district, and then the city’s budget. These days, Lawrence’s unemployment rate is 14.8 percent, the highest of any city in the state. At any given time, hundreds of homeless live outside, says Susan McGibbon who provides outreach to the city’s homeless at The Psychological Center.
“There’s no quick fix to any of this,” says McGibbon, who describes the outdoor homeless as a tight-knit community whose members typically have numerous overlaying problems such as substance abuse and mental health issues. She says even when people decide they want to apply for subsidized housing, it can take months to process. She also said there’s a lack of subsidized units in the town, leading some to take refuge in rooming houses.
Andrew McMahon, director of the Daybreak homeless shelter in Lawrence, says some of the homeless prefer to live outdoors because the shelter prohibits drugs, alcohol, and smoking. “It’s almost an independence, if you will, but in the throes of dependence,” he says.
The city has no homeless outreach programs, and while it owns the 95-year-old Central Bridge on North Canal Street and the land along the Merrimack where the homeless can be found, it has no plans to beef up security, according to Romero and Department of Public Works director John Isensee. “We just don’t have the resources to do that,” says Isensee.
Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua did not respond to interview requests for this article.
For the last month, Dietrich has slept on friends’ couches, but he says that can’t last much longer. In previous years, on the 3,000-square-foot dirt floor under the bridge, he’s set up living quarters that have included tents, a dining room table, a dresser and mirror, and a potbelly stove. He’s now gearing up for another winter under the bridge. Most of the time, Dietrich says he’s alone in the area of the bridge he chooses, or with a couple of men who have lost their jobs or have broken up with their girlfriends. He promises that things will be OK if the men are left alone.
“I feel terrible about it [the fire] and for all the people who had to go through it,” says Dietrich, who does not own a cellphone. “We try to keep the peace, and try to deal with what we have to deal with.”To see video, go to bostonglobe.com. E-mail Steven A. Rosenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.