It was supposed to be Eric Zahn’s day off. But shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday, the Lawrence fire captain got the call: There were reports of fires throughout the city. It was an all-hands-on-deck sort of catastrophe.
Zahn first responded to a multiunit, townhouse-like building on Wedgewood Drive. Heavy fire was burning through one of the units, and smoke was blowing out of the second-floor windows.
It was the start of an unprecedented shift for 24-year veteran of the department. The calls kept coming. There were reports of gas fires on Jefferson Street. There was a structure fire near the corner of Brookfield and Bowdoin streets. A house exploded on Chickering Road, killing a teenager, near where Zahn grew up in South Lawrence. All told, Zahn, 49, said he went to five or six different structure fires in the city.
He was initially involved with suppressing the fires, manning a hose at some of the scenes. Later, he worked in incident command. There were scores of departments from outside Lawrence, some from as far as York, Maine, that responded to the city and there needed to be “someone familiar with Lawrence to lead the response to the different areas of the city,” Zahn said.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Zahn, who is the president of Lawrence Fire Fighters Union Local 146.
Zahn hailed the mutual aid response to Lawrence.
“Without the mutual aid response, we wouldn’t be able to get the situation covered,” he said.
The firefighters, he said, were exhausted from the number of the incidents. Firefighters, he said, are for the most part trained to fight fires “on an individual basis,” meaning Thursday posed an unusual challenge.
“All of these fires going on at the same time, it’s physically taxing on the members,” Zahn said. “It’s something we haven’t dealt with before on that type of scale.”
Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said the department does not have a specific figure for the number of fires in the city Thursday but did say his firefighters responded to “60-odd incidents.”
“At least six good working fires, a couple explosions where the buildings imploded, and a lot of little fires,” he said.
Asked why so few lives were lost, given the scope of Thursday’s fires and explosions, Moriarty said Friday, “We got lucky, and we have a lot of dedicated men and women who serve the city.”
More than 200 firefighters were in Lawrence responding to the various incidents. The chief did not know how many departments responded for mutual aid.
Crews finished fighting the fires sometime overnight, Moriarty said. He believed firefighters were still battling a blaze that had reignited around 2 a.m. Friday, he said.
“That’s definitely not the magnitude of incidents we prepare for,” he said of the fires and explosions.Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.