LAWRENCE — Medical workers at Lawrence General Hospital had just finished a shift change, and many were on their way home when the facility began to get calls about the gas explosions and fires that tore through this city and surrounding communities Thursday evening.
With the emergency room already near full with routine cases, hospital officials braced for an influx of patients injured by the unfolding catastrophe.
“We got a call around 4:30 that there were eight almost-spontaneous fires in the city, and it kept on moving. It kept on growing,” Paul Brennan, director of emergency management at Lawrence General, said at a press conference Friday. “Minutes later, there was a home explosion.”
Leonel Rondon, 18, who was killed after a chimney fell on his car, was treated at Lawrence General before being taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Lawrence General said it treated a total of 13 victims with injuries ranging from smoke inhalation to blast trauma. Just one person remained hospitalized and was undergoing surgery Friday.
“I could speculate that it was time of day, many people weren’t home from work yet,” Brennan said, marveling that so few people were hurt in the catastrophe. “But a lot of it was just pure luck. We were very lucky.”
Dr. Earl Gonzales, chief of trauma surgery, said he was grateful that the damage wasn’t even worse.
“We were expecting a lot more. It started around 5 p.m. and initially there were five patients that came in right away, and two of them were serious and critical,” he said. “But we waited for a few more hours, and it slowed down. We were happy that they were the only patients we had.”
Hospital officials said they were able to handle the cases thanks in part to the many employees who returned to work — some of whose own homes were among those affected. Between 60 and 80 structures caught fire.
State fire investigators say they are focusing on overpressurization of a gas main owned by Columbia Gas, which serves about 50,000 customers in and around Lawrence and had been upgrading its equipment in the area.
Dianne J. Anderson, president and chief executive of Lawrence General, said the hospital was able to quickly admit many of its existing emergency patients to make room for those injured in the fires.
“We had several staff who knew that something was happening with their house, whether it was significantly impacted or maybe they weren’t even sure. But they felt they had to be here to take care of the victims and the community,” Anderson said.