Bill Gibbs was driving home on Interstate 93 Thursday afternoon when his phone rang. It was his neighbor.
“You gotta come quickly,” Gibbs recalled him saying. “There’s smoke coming out of your home.”
By the time he got to the house on Herrick Road in North Andover, there were flames, too, and fire trucks. No one was home, but the house where he and his wife raised their two children was badly damaged.
“It’s been a tough day,” Gibbs said.
And a surreal one for many residents in neighborhoods in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover where a series of gas explosions damaged dozens of homes, injured more than 20 people, and killed one Lawrence man when a chimney collapsed onto the car where he was sitting.
For Carla Morel, it began with a phone call, too. She was out Thursday afternoon when a neighbor called telling of an explosion at her house, on Kingston Street near the Merrimack River in south Lawrence. She came home to find the three-story house she’s owned for five years had been blown off its foundation, its top floor collapsing onto the street. By Friday morning, the mother of two still hadn’t been able to go back inside.
“It was really, really bad,” said Morel, who was thankful her two young children, age 4 and 5, were at school when the blast happened. “They said maybe we have to build a new house.”
Matt Halloran was at home in the Chickering Road neighborhood of Lawrence when his neighbor asked him to come over and help her fix a fireplace heater, which she said had self-activated. Halloran was putting on his shoes when he heard an explosion in his own house. The sound rang his ears, he recalled. Before long, he’d heard four more blasts nearby, and the “quiet and beautiful” neighborhood where he’s lived for more than two decades quickly grew chaotic.
“I’ve never seen so many fire departments,” Halloran said.
By dusk, with the power turned off, it was eerily dark. No street lights or driveway flood lights, just bright beams from emergency response vehicles bouncing off the houses. Halloran’s phone kept ringing; it was his wife, who’d taken their children to her sister’s house in New Hampshire for the night.
“My wife keeps calling, asking, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’ ” he said.
Power was off across much of South Lawrence, giving a chaotic vibe as the night wore on. Streets were choked with traffic while people milled in front of their homes, unable to go in and confused about what they should do. Police were directing traffic at intersections with flashlights, while cruisers patrolled neighborhoods, their blue tops flashing.
“It felt like martial law,” said William Hartung, a subcontractor trying to shut off the gas at a house one of his clients owns on Exeter Street. “I’m worried people are going to do dumb stuff.”
There were no reports of any significant crime or property damage, but the eerieness continued through the night.
John Farrington described making his way from his home in Nashua, N.H., to Carleen’s, a diner he owns on South Broadway, around 3:30 Friday morning, passing closed intersections on Route 495 and wending his way through back streets in Lawrence.
In the cool night, the smoke and water had thickened into a deep fog, and the smell of natural gas hung in the air. There were no street lights, but big intersections were lit by stands of floodlights powered by humming generators.
“The whole thing was just odd,” he said. “It felt kind of apocalyptic.”
But Halloran owns a diner, and he knows the power of coffee. Once he got to his restaurant and made sure it was safe, he fired up a bunch of butane catering burners and put on a big pot. There were lots of people around who were happy to have a cup.
“People in the neighborhood stayed,” Farrington said. “They didn’t have anywhere to go.”
Some people couldn’t get home. Rose Duchesne, who lives on Easton Street in Lawrence, said she’d been visiting her niece in Andover Thursday afternoon when police and firefighters descended on the neighborhood and told residents to evacuate. She started driving home to Lawrence but was detoured by a house fire on Jefferson Street and wound up back in Andover, where she spent the night with her brother at a senior center where the Red Cross had set up a temporary shelter.
Sara Smith was at the shelter as well. It was just a two-minute walk from her home but might as well have been a world away. She was at work when she heard about the explosion and tried to drive home but gave up after two hours of gridlock. She waited it out in a Market Basket parking lot, made her way to her evacuated street, and spent the night at the senior center.
“I’ve talked to some residents who’ve been here for an eternity and they said they never encountered this before,” said Smith, who covered her legs with a New England Patriots blanket that she grabbed from her pickup. “This is a scary thing.”
But, several people said, the quick and visible response from emergency personnel helped to keep things orderly, under the circumstances. And, even as gas crews worked to check houses and started to restore service Friday morning, insurance companies were fanning out to help residents assess the damage.
Morel’s insurance company put her and her children up Thursday night in a hotel, where they’ll probably be for a while longer. Even as she waited outside Friday morning for the chance to go safely back in to her house and get some things, she said things could be a lot worse.
“I’m OK,” she said. “Everything is fine for now.”
Still, by Friday afternoon, anger was growing at Columbia Gas. At an emotional news conference where Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency and put Eversource in charge of recovery efforts, Rivera accused the gas utility of abandoning its responsibilities in the wake of the explosions.
“It just seems like there’s no one in charge,” he said. “They’re hiding from the problem.”
Baker, alongside him, agreed, and said he hoped leadership from Eversource would be able to better manage the recovery.
“I believe at this point in time it is best for people of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover for us to get a new team leading this effort,” Baker said. “This will lead to a better team on the ground.”
That was welcome news to Christel Nazario, who lives across the street from a house that is in tatters. She was glad to hear Columbia is off the job and said Friday afternoon that Eversource has already been in the neighborhood turning off gas.
“[Columbia] created this problem,” she said. “As far as we know, they did this. A young kid lost his life because of them.”