LAWRENCE — The black-and-white photo is stretched across a canvas mounted on the living-room wall in the Soto family’s house.
The image depicts clouds in the sky, a worn American flag and the Jefferson Street marker.
“It’s where we achieved the American dream,” said Veronica Soto as she looked up at the picture.
For the Soto family, the journey to their home was hard fought — not once, but twice.
Nearly a year ago without warning, their blue ranch-style residence in South Lawrence burst into flames. It was just one of many structures that ignited Sept. 13, 2018 in the Merrimack Valley gas disaster.
Twelve months later, the Sotos have rebuilt and moved back into their house. The process of getting there, however, weighed heavily on the young family whose members, traumatized and left with nearly nothing, were determined to get back to their neighborhood.
“Nothing could prepare us for that,” said Veronica, who with Ivan has two daughters, Aalyah, 13, and Destiny, 16. “That day, the place we thought was the safest place became not the safest place.”
Her husband, Ivan, 37, then a rookie Lawrence police officer, made national headlines for his dedication during the disaster.
While his home was burning, Ivan remained on duty in the city, responding to emergency calls and fires and helping thousands of residents evacuate from South Lawrence, as ordered during the emergency.
It was not until 7:30 p.m. that night, several hours into the disaster, when Soto eventually followed a captain’s order and went to be with his family.
Two days after the disaster, Ivan Soto stood in front of the blackened, charred rubble of his own home and was interviewed on national TV for the “Today” show.
He wore his Lawrence Police Department ball cap and a blue-and-grey Adidas sweatshirt a stranger donated to him.
His home, and everything he and his family had in it, was gone, Soto told America.
During the disaster, there were no other gas-driven fires on Jefferson Street.
“It was just us,” he said.
‘A dent in my heart’
The family’s road to home ownership started many years ago. Ivan and Veronica, a couple for 18 years, knuckled down at one point and developed a strict, five-year plan to get both their finances and careers on track.
That meant they and their two daughters would move into a tiny apartment in Veronica’s parents’ house.
“It is the smallest apartment in Lawrence,” Veronica quipped.
They worked and pinched and saved.
Ivan, who had worked for the Department of Youth Services, went back to school with the goal of becoming a police officer. Veronica, meanwhile, focused on building up her own hair salon.
In November 2015, the Sotos passed papers and got the keys to their new house at 60 Jefferson St.
“We did it in four and a half years,” Veronica, 36, said proudly. “We worked for it.”
She said the future seemed bright.
“We were into our freedom and everything was looking so good,” she said.
On the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, members of the Soto family were scattered in different places.
Ivan was on duty for the Lawrence police. Veronica was working at her hair salon, Studio 17 in Reading. Aalyah was at the Frost School.
Their oldest daughter Destiny was home alone when the fire started.
Veronica recalled talking to her daughter on her cellphone with the home’s fire alarms screaming in the background.
On a screen in his police cruiser, Ivan remembers seeing fire after fire after fire being reported on the south side of the city. One of the worst was rapidly imploding at his own home.
Veronica, meanwhile, was desperate to get home from Reading and hampered by traffic. She decided to take Route 28 all the way to Lawrence, knowing there was a problem at her home but still unaware of the magnitude of the natural gas disaster.
Once she was in Andover, she rolled down her car window, hoping for a breath of fresh air.
“I was punched with gas,” she said, describing the intense odor. “It was insane.”
The family would soon learn their pet cats, Simba and Milo, perished in the blaze.
Flames destroyed a “memory box” stuffed with sentimental items Veronica had under her bed. Inside was the first rose Ivan ever gave her, wedding and baby pictures, cards from special occasions, birth certificates, high school diplomas and even the tiny hospital bracelets her daughters wore after their birth.
“The box had started small and got bigger and bigger. It was 18 years in the making. ... our identity,” she said describing the loss.
“It put such a dent in my heart. It’s so traumatizing,” she said.
Fire destroyed everything. They were left — literally — with the clothes they were wearing that day.
Ivan had proudly hung an American flag on his home. It was burnt and stained, but a firefighter grabbed it and saved it for the family.
The flag is now framed and hangs in the Soto’s rebuilt home.
“He put it off to the side,” said Ivan, describing the firefighter’s actions. “I am very thankful for that.”
Recovering and rebuilding
At Ivan’s suggestion, Veronica first took the girls to Riverfront Park on the Merrimack River as the fires continued throughout the city that evening. He wanted them to just get away from any houses or buildings still connected to gas lines.
Later, one of her clients, a woman married to a Methuen police lieutenant, called Veronica and said she had reserved the family a room at the Hampton Inn in Amesbury. It was the closest vacancy she could find.
“I didn’t even know what to say. We work for everything. But this was really, really nice of her. And then she paid for another night,” Veronica said.
A GoFundMe account was launched for the Sotos almost immediately, with city police and firefighters sharing the link on social media.
Financial and material donations started pouring in. People showed up at their hotel room door with toiletries and suitcases and trash bags full of clothing. Friends bought the family new underwear and pajamas.
“It was overwhelming,” Veronica said. “I can’t even remember how many bags of clothes we got.”
What the family couldn’t use they donated to others through the House of Mercy on Baystate Road.
The Sotos would move from the Hampton Inn to a Residence Inn in Tewksbury and later, aided by their insurance company, to a temporary apartment in Andover.
The couple had enrolled in and paid for very generous home insurance coverage through Geico.
“Definitely make sure you have good insurance,” said Ivan, offering post-disaster advice to both homeowners and tenants.
The family started the process of rebuilding their home and also themselves. In October, they started with a therapist to help them process the massive trauma and loss they’d endured.
The therapist they clicked with didn’t take their health insurance. But she told the Sotos to keep coming anyway and they would work it out later.
“The therapy has definitely helped me,” Veronica said, noting she’s had to balance “being a mom, being a wife and being level headed for everyone.”
Along the way, Veronica said she has tried to send a handwritten thank you note to anyone she had an address for that helped them. She wants to make sure everyone knows how grateful they are.
At the end of May, the Sotos moved back to Jefferson Street to a flagstone blue Colonial with black shudders. The new door is red just like their old door.
The family also has two new kittens — Prince and Mila.
While the response to their plight was enormously positive, Ivan said his daughters have seen insulting comments on social media and attached to news stories. Some have questioned how they afforded their house in the first place and why no one tried to save their pet cats.
Ivan said he knew such comments were impossible to avoid and had hoped to shelter his daughters from the cruelty.
“That’s one of the most important things I’d definitely like to get out there,” Ivan said with a very firm tone. “We did not ask for this. We were perfectly happy with our house.”
“We did not ask for this and we would reverse it if we could,” he continued.
Veronica mirrored his sentiments.
“If I could turn back the hands of time, I would in a heartbeat,” she said.
Together, as a family, they all learned a hard lesson about what matters most in life — your family, Ivan said.
“That is what has kept us together and what has kept us going. We had each other,” he said.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.