Recordings show how horror in Merrimack Valley unfolded

Officials warn it will be a slow return to normalcy in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.
Officials warn it will be a slow return to normalcy in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.

First responders in the Merrimack Valley were receiving the usual calls for minor injuries and small fires Thursday afternoon, until very suddenly the day became anything but normal, according to recordings of radio channels used by firefighters and police.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the first call connected to the disaster that affected Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, but by about 4:35 p.m. a police dispatcher said there were “hundreds” of calls for house fires and gas leaks, according to a Globe review of recorded channels for Lawrence police and Essex County fire and emergency medical services.


As early as 4:15 p.m., according to the recordings preserved by Broadcastify, there were multiple reports of fires, many of them in basements, as firefighters scrambled crews to fight the blazes.

About 4:19 p.m., a voice on the fire and EMS channel said there were reports of fires at 19 Robinson Court and 98 Mifflin Drive, both apparently in North Andover, “all reporting a strong odor of gas.”

Moments later, a man on the channel said there were blazes at four sites in Lawrence: “We have additional reports of multiple streets: 28 Springfield, Farnham, Adams, and Abbott [streets] — all basement fires.”

Two minutes later, a voice said, “I’m off on the scene. Have the gas company respond immediately. I wonder if they had a high-pressure feed.”

The response came: “Gas company is responding out immediately. We have a report of fire in the basement, 151 Waverly Road, and 11 Edmands Road [both in North Andover]. I’m contacting Andover, Lawrence, and Methuen to send engines out.”

The house explosion and chimney collapse that killed 18-year-old Leonel Rondon were discussed by officers and dispatchers on the Lawrence police channel.

About 4:25 p.m., a speaker announced, “OK, a loud explosion in the Colonial Heights neighborhood. Sounds like it came from a house.”


Less than a minute later, an echoey voice came over the channel: “I just had a house explosion. Complete explosion. I’ll get you the address in a second.”

Then the announcement: The home was at 35 Chickering Road, where Rondon was killed.

“I have entrapment in the house. Multiple people,” a man said.

Voices reported that the Fire Department was en route to that address.

“Lawrence, I got one victim trapped, compound fracture,” a voice said.

A few moments later, another voice added, “We have a male trapped in the vehicle right now. The chimney is on top of him.”

As the minutes passed and more information became available, the scope of the danger became more apparent.

About 4:31 p.m., a voice commanded, “All right, get every civilian out of this area. All the civilians, get them out of their houses. Let’s go.”

A minute or so later, a voice said, “Lawrence, I know you’re busy. You may want to notify the school department, have them get the kids out of Lawrence High.”

Then, about 4:35, a voice apparently belonging to a police dispatcher said operators were “getting hundreds of these coming in.”

About the same time, a speaker on the fire and EMS channel summed up the situation.

“All the surrounding towns have the exact same issue,” he said. “Multiple fires, multiple towns.”

Globe correspondent Mark Gartsbeyn contributed to this report. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.