The ordinary people who rushed to help when catastrophe struck the Merrimack Valley
When calamity came to Lawrence, residents and neighboring communities pulled together.
Dave Amero went from cutting his grass on his day off to racing around his neighborhood with a borrowed pipe wrench, shutting off neighbors’ gas meters. Ivan Soto was with fellow Lawrence police officers trying to free 18-year-old Leonel Rondon from an SUV crushed by a collapsed chimney when his wife called to tell him their home was on fire. North Andover Selectwoman Rosemary Smedile watched anxiously as firefighters braved the flames from her house to save her parakeet and her dog.
These and myriad other stories came after blasts caused by a botched natural gas pipe replacement on September 13 ripped through Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover. An estimated 35,000 people were affected, most of them in South Lawrence, and the Main Street shopping districts of Andover and North Andover were all but closed.
Selfless actions in the moment were too numerous to count. Amero still doesn’t know the name of the state trooper who went house to house with him, marking with tape roughly 30 homes where the Lawrence fire lieutenant shut the gas off. Soto took a break from rescue efforts only long enough to make sure his wife and daughter were OK and shed a few tears over their destroyed house. Martha Velez, the director of the Lawrence Senior Center, was up well after midnight setting up a shelter at the Parthum Elementary School for people who’d been evacuated from their homes, even making phone calls to friends to gather baby items for a woman who had given birth only four days earlier.
Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty, by city law the emergency services director, scrambled to establish a command center. Across town his wife, Kim, director of emergency services at Lawrence General Hospital, did the same. Dr. Jason Reid, the hospital’s orthopedic traumatologist, would later save the life of a woman gravely injured when her home exploded.
Casualties were remarkably few given the destruction, but displacements were widespread, and often long. As the days of not having a place to live turned to weeks and then months for some residents, a bond was forged across these three very different cities. Median household incomes in Andover and North Andover break the $100,000 mark, and more than 90 percent of residents in 2010 were white; Lawrence, full of Spanish-speaking immigrants, has a median household income of $39,627.
When Lawrence High visited Andover for a Friday night football game a week after the blasts, Andover cheerleaders gave cupcakes and flowers to their counterparts. The announcer asked for a moment of silence for Leonel Rondon, the catastrophe’s sole fatality. A Facebook group formed in the aftermath of the explosions quickly grew to more than 1,500 members from across the three communities. People vented frustration at going weeks without heat or hot water, and they helped one another find rides to the laundromat.
At every press conference updating the plodding process of getting people back in their homes, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera is flanked by North Andover’s town manager, Andrew Maylor, and Andover’s town manager, Andrew Flanagan, who says “a silver lining we can take away from all of this is that bond, and the deeper sense of community we’re going to have as a result of this.”
By mid-December, most residents and businesses were back to something like normal. Still, some remained in need. A father and son from North Andover arrived at the Lawrence Senior Center after losing access to the hotel where they’d been staying. Velez was able to extend their hotel accommodations. She says the last few months have been a lesson in “how we can help one another and lift one another.”