HAVERHILL — The explosion of heroin-related deaths in Essex County was already startling in itself: In 2014, the opiate is suspected to be the cause of 132 deaths in this northeastern swath of the state, double the total for all of 2013.
But what could be the latest additions to heroin's grim total may also be the most shocking. Authorities are looking at the drug as the possible cause of the deaths of a mother and father found this weekend in their Haverhill home by their two young children.
“These are suspicious deaths being investigated as possible heroin overdose deaths,” Mayor James Fiorentini said Monday, adding that authorities are awaiting the results of autopsies and toxicology reports.
The 36-year-old mother and 39-year-old father were found Saturday morning in their Lamoille Avenue home by their children, ages 8 and 10, authorities said. One of the children, a boy, called his grandparents after he tried in vain to wake up his father, who was in bed, an official familiar with the investigation said. The mother was found in the bathroom, the official said.
The names of the parents were not released.
Haverhill, a city of 62,000 residents on the Merrimack River in northern Essex County, has seen what Fiorentini calls “an epidemic” of heroin-related deaths. Heroin overdoses have been confirmed, or are suspected, in 22 deaths in the city this year, according to the office of Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.
“This is a huge tragedy,” Fiorentini said in an interview. “Two young children are homeless and orphaned at Christmas time. . . . When I heard about it, I wanted to cry.”
The spike in heroin-related deaths in Essex County mirrors a rise seen elsewhere in the state. Hundreds of opioid-related deaths this year from Cape Cod to the Berkshires have devastated families and galvanized government officials, who have worked to ratchet up public awareness and increase substance-abuse treatment.
But the epidemic, which Governor Deval Patrick in May called a “public emergency” and Governor-elect Charlie Baker has said is one of his priorities,has proved excruciatingly difficult to reverse.
What makes heroin abuse so frightening now is the purity and potency of the drug, said Dr. Jonathan Miller, executive director of a Haverhill-based addiction treatment program, who has been involved in addiction treatment for 45 years.
“It’s so much more powerful now,” he said. “And that makes it much more dangerous.”
Officials have said the use of fentanyl in heroin sold on the streets is a contributor to the rising death toll in Massachusetts. Fentanyl, another potent drug, is sometimes mixed with heroin to enhance the initial rush and the high, he said. Users build tolerance to drugs and thus seek ever-increasing potency to match previous highs, specialists say.
Fiorentini last month appointed a task force to come up with recommendations on fighting heroin addiction. Haverhill police have recently been provided with Narcan, a drug that officials say has been effective in reviving people who have overdosed on opioids.
Fiorentini said addiction to prescription pills often precedes the use of heroin, which is cheaper and more readily available than pills. Heroin addicts, the mayor said, “are young people, for the most part, with their whole lives ahead of them.”
Few details were released about the couple found dead on Saturday.
Blodgett’s spokeswoman, Carrie Kimball Monahan, said investigators saw no sign that foul play was involved, but declined to provide other details or release the parents’ names.
The children are in the custody of their grandmother, officials said. Haverhill police did not return a phone call.
On Monday, the porch of the house where the couple died was festooned with red and green ribbons and evergreens and a big artificial snowman holding a sign that says: “Merry Christmas.”
Even with snow in the air, the mood was far from festive in the neighborhood.
“Being a dad myself, it’s just devastating,” said Ari Pardales, owner of Ari’s Pizza and Subs, one door down from the house. “I just can’t stop thinking about the kids.”
Fiorentini spoke to several hundred people on Sunday evening at a downtown rally dubbed “Haverhill against Heroin.”
“My advice to parents is to go to your medicine cabinet and check to see if there is any pain medication missing,” he said Monday. “Some parents say, ‘Not my son, not my daughter,’ but no one is safe.”
Fiorentini, 67, said he has witnessed the toll of heroin on people close to him. “I thought I knew what heroin was about,” he said. “But I was wrong. I’ve never seen it like this.”
Josh Brewster, 30, an Iraqi war veteran, said one of his best friends in the city died of a heroin overdose. “We grew up on the same street, went to school together, the whole thing,” he said. “Now he’s gone.”
“It has hit every neighborhood,” said Brewster. “It seems like it starts with prescription pills and goes to heroin. People talk about it being in a bad crowd. There is no bad crowd. That crowd is everyone.”