LAWRENCE — It began, a little after 4 p.m. Thursday, with a single call about a basement fire — an unremarkable event, on what had seemed an unremarkable afternoon. A minute or two later, emergency dispatchers north of Boston received another call about another fire. Then a half-dozen more in quick succession, all within five minutes, each reporting a basement fire or a strong odor of gas.
“We have . . . multiple streets,” a voice on the radio said, according to county fire and EMS records. “Have the gas company respond immediately.”
By 4:20 p.m., it was clear: Something dangerous was happening. But no one knew what it was, or when, or how, it would end.
As the calls came faster, fire departments in Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence scrambled to respond. “We have a house explosion, fully leveled,” came a report at 4:30. “I have entrapment in the house.” As the incoming calls spiked, into the hundreds, and the number of working fires multiplied into the dozens, someone issued a reminder: “Everybody stay calm.”
Then, just after 4:30, with public safety at risk, authorities gave the order to evacuate over the Lawrence police radio channel: “All right, get every civilian out of this area. All the civilians, get them out of their houses. Let’s go.”
It was a stunning response to an unimaginable series of events, unfolding with shocking speed and total lack of warning. Hundreds of firefighters and other emergency workers responded Thursday to as many as 80 fires and explosions across the Merrimack Valley, a wave of chaos that left one man dead and at least 25 others injured, destroyed dozens of properties, and forced thousands of residents out of their homes.
It also left lingering questions, in ravaged neighborhoods facing months of recovery, as residents struggled to grasp how and why their lives had been upended.
At Christine Cohne’s home, on a quiet, leafy street in the so-called Library District of North Andover, Thursday afternoon meant soccer practice.
Cohne said she was at home with her husband and two children, getting ready to head to the field around 4 p.m., when her 11-year-old son came running into the house.
“Help, help, Rosemary’s house is on fire!” he yelled, as his startled mother rushed to call 911.
Outside, the whole street smelled of smoke, Cohne said, not a wood fire smell, but “a dirty smell, dark brown smoke billowing out of the chimney.”
Her neighbor Rosemary Smedile — a real estate agent and a member of the North Andover Board of Selectmen — had been away from her Greene Street home for barely 20 minutes, running errands, she said, when her cellphone rang with terrifying news.
“There’s smoke coming out of your chimney,” one of her neighbors told her.
Panic swept through her. “I’ll be right there,” said Smedile, who quickly hung up and dialed 911. But the phone system, overwhelmed, would not send her through.
Desperate, she scrolled through her contacts and called the fire chief directly on his cellphone.
“Could you please call the department and tell them my house is on fire?” she asked.
As a half-dozen firetrucks converged, and firefighters rushed to save Smedile’s dog and bird, fires were burning in neighboring Lawrence as well. Landlord David Lee ran through his six-unit apartment building on Springfield Street after a fire started there, throwing open doors to the units and warning the tenants.
“It got intense from there,” Lee said. “The flames went fast.”
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A mile away, at his home in the Chickering Road neighborhood in Lawrence, Matt Halloran was getting ready to go help a neighbor.
The woman had asked him to fix her fireplace heater, which she said had started on its own and wouldn’t shut off. Halloran agreed to take a look. He was leaning over, putting on his shoes, when an explosion shook his street, ringing in his ears.
Outside he found a chaotic scene. The blast had rocked a nearby house, and the walls and chimney had collapsed, trapping the young men who had been sitting inside a car in the driveway. Neighbors would later learn that one of them, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, had died of injuries he suffered in the collapse.
Fear and uncertainty descended as the flashing lights of emergency vehicles lit up the dusk, and circling helicopters choppered overhead. When Halloran’s wife and children left to go stay with a relative in New Hampshire, they carried the unsettled feeling with them.
“My wife keeps calling me asking, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’” he said.
By 5 p.m., state troopers had descended, fanning out to scenes across the area. In Andover, the fire department triggered its 10-alarm response call, the maximum level, as nearly 20 fires burned at once, and police in North Andover sent out an urgent townwide text: Residents in buildings served by gas lines should get out at once.
At his home on Sylvester Street in Lawrence, Bill Auriemma heard someone banging on the door. When he opened it, a firefighter stood there.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to shut your gas off and you’ve got to get out,’” Auriemma said. “I went to turn the light on and he said, ‘Don’t touch the switch because of the spark!’”
A half a mile away on Stevens Street, Luis Abreu had fallen asleep after getting home from work. He woke around 6 p.m. to the smell of gas in his kitchen, and rushed out of the house in a panic, just as his fiancée rushed to tell him that homes throughout the neighborhood were erupting in flames.
A little before 7 p.m., to keep people out of the area, State Police shut down several offramps on Interstate 495. Traffic was gridlocked, as evacuating residents tried to make their way to someplace safer.
National Grid, which provides electricity to the area, turned off power to its customers as a safety precaution. Homes, stores, restaurants, and traffic lights went dark. At intersections, police officers directed traffic with flashlights. Cruisers crawled through neighborhoods with blue lights flashing, while some residents camped out in their cars to find a power source.
Dean Finocchiaro of Lawrence sat in his car charging his devices — a computer, a phone, and a set of LED lights — and listening to the radio, trying to piece together news about what had happened.
Some weren’t evacuating because they feared the night’s unrest might boil over, leading to looting or worse.
“I’m worried people are going to do dumb stuff,” said William Hartung, 49, a subcontractor in Lawrence.
A crescent moon rose high above the darkened city, now a dim silhouette beside the Merrimack River. Thousands were displaced, many in shelters, trying to find sleep in the restive quiet.
When Friday morning came, it brought few answers and more uncertainty.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board began searching for the cause of the calamity, considering possible 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. But there was no word on when it would be safe to go back home.
Around 9 a.m., a town official in North Andover posted a tweet alerting residents that two Columbia representatives would soon be available at a downtown shopping plaza. Several dozen residents showed up and waited for more than an hour, then peppered the officials with questions when they finally arrived.
The residents received few answers. James Hassam, a retired firefighter who the day before had gone door to door helping his North Andover neighbors shut off their gas lines after the fires started, chastised the officials for being ill prepared.
“I really think you should have come here with more information,” he told the Columbia representatives, who offered to take residents’ contact information and get back to them.
As police went door to door in stricken neighborhoods Friday, shutting off the gas in vacant houses, city buses arrived at shelters and ferried some residents to their homes so they could retrieve a few items.
At a shelter in Arlington Middle School in North Lawrence, displaced residents ate a breakfast of sausage and eggs in the school cafeteria. Celia Monty, 72, sitting at a table with her son, Donald Monty Jr., 53, said she was in no hurry to go home to a house she worried could blow up.
“I feel safe here for now,” she said.
In her purse were two framed pictures she’d grabbed from a bureau in the rush to evacuate Thursday night — both of her late husband. But Monty had brought precious little else. Her dog, a Pomeranian named Charlie Brown, was in another shelter where pets were allowed. And she still didn’t know how long they would be away from home.
Around the city, frustration was mounting, as the early quest for answers turned up none. Still, in the midst of all the tension, some harried residents stumbled across unexpected gifts.
With the power still out, businesses on South Union Street in Lawrence were mostly shuttered. But at Carlos Cakes bakery and flower store, owner Carlos Alba, 47, was trying to figure out what to do with his cakes, which would perish without refrigeration.
With few options — and a certain delight — he set up two folding tables outside his shop, carried out the cakes, and started giving them away.
“Free cake for everybody!” he yelled. “Take the whole cake — no problem!”
One by one, grateful residents — some lugging suitcases filled with the few belongings they’d taken from their homes — stopped and added a cake to their load. One woman paused to kiss Alba on the cheek, overjoyed to find some sweetness in the midst of so much heartache.
As the afternoon softened into evening, Ketcy Rivera, 32, made her way across the Joseph W. Casey Bridge toward North Lawrence, heading back to her car and wondering where she and her two young sons would sleep that night.
They’d stayed in a hotel Thursday and briefly returned home Friday afternoon to grab a bag of belongings. But now she had no hotel reservation — just the hope that a plan would come together.
Her boys, 5-year-old Ricardo and 3-year-old Josiah, had been asking her all day: “Why can’t we go home?” She didn’t have a good answer.
“It’s a terrible nightmare,” Ricardo said.