LAWRENCE — The topic at the international policing conference in the spring was natural disasters, triggering presentations from police chiefs from California and Texas, states hit by wildfires and hurricanes.
Also among presenters was Lawrence police Chief Roy Vasque, who spoke about the response and ongoing recovery in the wake of the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley.
“Certainly we train for emergencies. But most times, those incidents are generally over in a day. They don’t last for months,” said Vasque, who spoke at the International Association of Chief’s of Police conference in Orlando, Florida.
Both Vasque and Lawrence fire Chief Brian Moriarty were continually asked during the past year to share their insights and advice after the gas disaster, which affected thousands of residents throughout the region.
On Sept. 13, an over-pressurized gas line caused dozens of fires and explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.
Leonel Rondon, 18, was killed in a Lawrence house explosion and others were injured in the event, which cut off gas service to 8,600 customers, some into mid-December.
At times, Vasque and Moriarty have attended events together, speaking about their experiences.
“It was difficult. I didn’t go home for four days. It was pretty crazy. It was dramatic. It was emotional. But that’s what we do,” said Moriarty, who developed a PowerPoint presentation and has spoken at more than a dozen engagements.
Moriarty has also been quoted in a variety of news and magazine articles.
The fire chief said his presentation explains the emergency response and “reasoning process” from the start of the disaster and how travel trailers were brought to parks for residents without heat to live in.
Vasque described the first few days as a “whirlwind” and at times “chaotic.”
He questioned whether any first-responder could be fully prepared for such a tragedy.
“Obviously the experience itself was all the training we needed,” he said. “It was non-stop, just adapting to the situation at hand. ... It was something you don’t get from a book or training.”
Vasque said he advises others in law enforcement to expect “something like this is going to happen to them.”
“And how would you handle it?” he questioned.
Mutual aid assistance from police and fire departments throughout New England was sent to the Merrimack Valley.
A command post was set up in the parking lot of the old Showcase Cinemas off Route 114 in Lawrence.
There, local police and fire officials, state police, Gov. Charlie Baker, state emergency response crews and more gathered to oversee the response.
“But we put our heads together and we worked hard every day. It was a total team effort,” he said.
Both said the experience brought them closer to the community, to those they serve along with those they work with.
“Everybody was involved, even the library and senior center director,” said Vasque. “We were able to cope and we had a lot of friends out there to help us.”
Moriarty recalled responding to fires initially and later handing out boxed meals to residents in need on Thanksgiving.
“It was great to see everyone come together and coordinate,” Vasque said.
Looking back over the past year, Moriarty stressed things were not handled perfectly. “There were issues. We learned about,” he said.
One thing the city lacked was a “mass notification system,” a process through which every single residence and business could be alerted about an emergency and how to proceed.
Today, that’s been changed, he said. A “code red” notification system is in place, which can carry bilingual emergency messages.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.