NORTH ANDOVER — Amid the fire trucks, police cruisers, and gas service vehicles, they pulled up Friday in two red vans. One labeled Patriots Lock, the other Brinks Lock.
They are locksmiths, what they called a dying breed.
As emergency responders went door to door Friday to make sure gas lines inside homes were shut off after the Thursday afternoon explosions that rocked the area, locksmiths’ services were in high demand.
“You need to help the community, help the officers, the fire departments, the gas company,” said Gary Colonna of Brinks Lock, moments after he picked a lock and let troopers and a gas technician inside a home on Edmands Road.
“It’s the safety of the community,” he said, wiping sweat from his brow.
Ed Fenby, deputy fire chief in Quincy, said gas company representatives got into most of the houses Thursday night, but they were double checking on Friday for safety reasons. He estimated that they will have to check 8,000 homes.
“”Wer’e still going to have to make sure there is no gas, safety is the key,” he said. “The gas company is looking at all the meters.”
After the number of fires and explosions that rocked the area, he said, “they want to preclude that from happening again.”
In only a matter of hours, Colonna and his brother David MacEachern, who owns Patriots Lock, had picked dozens of locks to empty homes. And they expect they will have to pick countless more, as authorities work through a broad swath of houses to confirm that gas lines had been shut off.
“This is nothing I’ve ever seen before; it’s chaos,” said MacEachern, who recalled picking locks in Lexington for a week in 2005 after a gas explosion at one structure.
“There’s a shortage of lock guys here,” he added.
It was a trade that the brothers, who were born and raised in Arlington, came upon by accident.
Colonna, the older of the two at 59 years, injured himself at a sales job when he was in his 20s. He tried to go to school at Middlesex Community College but felt too old: He was married and had a son, and the other students seemed young.
So he applied for a state grant and attended North Bennett Street School near the old North Church in Boston’s North End, which prides itself in teaching what Colonna called “dying trades,” including book binding and furniture and jewelry making.
Colonna decided to try locksmithing. He had seen others do it and knew they made decent money.
While he was still in school, he founded his own business. You have to do the work, though, he said, which means early mornings and late nights.
He tried to introduce his son into the business, to no avail.
“People don’t want to be a locksmith anymore,” he said. “There’s money in it; there’s just a lot of work to do.”
MacEachern, 46, was eager to follow his brother into the trade. And each learned he could run his own business.
They pick locks and install them, including security locks for banks. They reshape keys. When a home is foreclosed on, they let bank representatives inside.
And, in rare occasions, such as Thursday’s gas explosions, they have to let emergency responders inside homes to make sure power lines are shut off.
They don’t like that work. They never enter without State Police, and they only do it to make sure the door is locked when they leave. The rest of the work is up to the gas technicians.
MacEachern took approximately 10 minutes to pick the lock at one house on Buckingham Road, first trying the front door, then the back, only to have a relative of the homeowner arrive just as he had finally pried the door open.
The man was angry that no one called him. MacEachern explained he was just doing his job.
“They got to realize what’s going on here,” MacEachern said. The responders, he said, “have a responsibility to make sure everyone is safe.”
On Edmands Road, several neighbors watched as the brothers went from house to house. One man tried to explain that a homeowner had left only an hour earlier and the gas was shut off. But he understood the check was needed.
“It’s just crazy, all over town,” said Jim Crane, a retired firefighter of more than two decades. “I don’t know how these guys [locksmiths] do this.”
Some houses were easy, such as the one on Buckingham Road. Colonna simply turned the knob after knocking. The door was open.
Others were older and far more difficult.
“It ain’t like the movies,” a frustrated MacEachern said. “Give me my screwdriver. And my oil. I’m going to pick it.”Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.