Everyone, it seems, remembers where they were that day.
Sept. 13, 2018, delivered a typical late summer, early fall kind of afternoon. At around 4:20 p.m., some people were still at work. Others were on their way to a child’s sporting event. Others were in their cars, headed home.
Their sense of normalcy would soon be shattered.
At about 4 p.m., a subcontractor for Columbia Gas was working to replace old, cast-iron gas lines with new plastic pipes. He had just switched service from a length of old pipe to one of the new ones under the intersection of South Union and Salem streets in South Lawrence.
However, sensors used to measure pressure in the lines were on the old piece of pipe. Those sensors, attached to monitoring stations, began to show that there was very little pressure in the old pipe. The system responded by pumping more gas.
At 4:04 p.m. and then at 4:05 p.m., alarms sounded in a Columbia Gas monitoring center in Columbus, Ohio, warning that there was too much gas being pumped into the distribution system in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.
At 4:11 p.m., the first 911 call came into Lawrence dispatchers that a house was on fire.
Over the next 19 minutes, the pressure mounted, forcing more and more natural gas into the system and ultimately into homes and businesses.
Furnaces, stoves and any other gas appliance with a pilot light became a potential flame thrower, pushing columns of fire into basements, kitchens, and laundry rooms across the region, igniting dozens of fires and in some cases resulting in catastrophic explosions.
As the gas silently made its way through the pipes, at first hissing and then igniting into balls of fire, the calm of a peaceful New England afternoon was turned into a cauldron of panic and terror the likes of which few had seen before.
At 4:30 p.m., Columbia Gas shut down the regulator that was pushing gas into the system.
By then, however, the damage was already done and fires were well on their way to claiming homes and injuring people — in one case even killing a young man in Lawrence.
Memories of mayhem
“I was in my car on my way home,” recalled Andover police Lt. Edward Guy. “I got an email about a couple of house fires. I called in to dispatch and they said, ‘No, there are 15 fires.’ That was 20 past 4.”
“I notified the chief immediately. He said, ‘Did you say 15 fires?’ He was in disbelief. We both headed to the station,” he continued. “I came back by way of 495 and you could see the smoke from a couple of different places in Lawrence. At that time, nobody understood the gravity of what was going on. It wasn’t until later in the evening that we learned it was a gas problem.”
North Andover police Chief Charles Gray was driving his two children to football practice around 4:30 p.m. when he heard some chatter on the scanner about an unusual number of fires erupting in Lawrence.
That’s when he got a call about a fire in North Andover.
Still in the car with his children, Gray headed to the scene which was right around the corner from their location, and helped firefighters get residents out of the house.
After leaving that fire he continued on to drop his kids off at football. But Gray said his son asked why smoke was coming out of another North Andover home as they drove by it.
“At that point I knew something was going on,” he said.
Lawrence police Chief Roy Vasque said he was on patrol when the first call came in to report a house fire and possible explosion, and then another from Chickering Street, where the blast was so strong it knocked over a chimney, which fell on a car and killed the 18-year-old driver.
“I was one of the first people to arrive at that scene,” Vasque said. “When I showed up there was debris still flying in the air, debris was scattered all over the neighborhood. The gas you could smell very distinctly. The sight was something out of a war scene.”
Vasque said as crazy as it sounds, the thought of, “I’m probably going to die here,” crossed his mind a couple of times.
Andover police Chief Patrick Keefe said he was also in his cruiser when he heard of the first Andover fire, which occurred on Maple Street.
“I didn’t think too much about it, it sounded like a fire in the basement,” he said.
Keefe said he then got a call from his executive officer (Lt. Guy) who told him there were fires everywhere.
After heading back to the station, Keefe established an Emergency Operations Center. From that point on, things just got more and more bizarre.
Guy remembered being in the operations center.
“It was horrific,” he said. “People kept showing up. They didn’t know what to do. There were people there saying, ‘I don’t know where I’m supposed to go.’”
‘Refugees’ in the streets
John Farrington, owner of Carleen’s Coffee Shoppe on South Broadway in Lawrence, said he had just arrived home from work when he saw a TV news broadcast about explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.
He checked out the traffic app on his cell phone and saw that every road in Lawrence was glowing red, indicating gridlocked traffic.
Instead of heading back to the city, he got up early and made it into his restaurant by 3 a.m. the following day.
He said that as daylight dawned, the city took on the look of a horror movie.
Hundreds of people were “going up and down the street, pulling luggage. They were the refugees from the gas disaster. You could see the panic in their eyes. The smell of gas was everywhere.”
Farrington used Bunsen burners as a heat source to make coffee, which he handed out with juice to “anyone walking by.”
“There were helicopters overhead, sirens sounding, and smoke everywhere,” he said. “People couldn’t conceive of what was happening. People thought the world was ending.”
‘House blew up’
Lawrence City Councilor Marc Laplante, whose district includes South Lawrence, said he was on his way from his office in Wilmington to St. John’s Prep in Danvers to see his son Max play football against Central Catholic around 4:15 p.m.
“It was my first time watching him play,” Laplante recalled. “I’m on the highway and saw something on my phone about an explosion in a house in my neighborhood.”
He called Mayor Dan Rivera’s chief of staff, Kate Reilly, to see if she knew anything.
“She said houses are blowing up all over Lawrence,” Laplante said. “She said she didn’t know what was going on, but was getting tons of calls. She said it was like a war scene, that things are exploding all over the place.”
He got out of the car, waved to his wife and son, saying he couldn’t stay. He had to get back to Lawrence.
“I got in my car and got stuck in traffic on Route 114 and WBZ and CNN are calling,” he remembered. “I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, I’m still not there.’”
Ambulances and fire trucks were whizzing by, headed toward the explosions.
“I finally parked at the old Denny’s parking lot on Route 114 across from where the Starbucks is now,” he said. “I see this guy sitting on the curb at the corner of Chickering Street. I said, ‘Are you OK?’ He said, ‘Something happened to my house.’”
Laplante helped the man up and together they walked to Cutler Street where they saw a police officer.
“I got a little ahead of this guy and walked up to the police officer and said softly, ‘This guy thinks his house blew up,’” Laplante recalled. The officer told him that yes, a house had blown up and someone had died.
They both talked to the man and told him to head to Lawrence General Hospital, where family members of injured people were meeting.
“That was my first few moments of the disaster,” said Laplante, who lives in Colonial Heights, just a few streets away from the Chickering Street home.
‘You ... know where you were’
Brenda Rozzi was with her husband, John, watching TV in their 127 Chester St. home around 4:15 p.m. The windows were all open, she said, because it was “such a nice, warm day.”
Then she smelled something — a mixture of smoke and natural gas.
She turned to her husband and asked if he had left the electric stove on. He went downstairs to check and came back up and said there were helicopters everywhere “and you could see smoke.”
She got a call from a friend who told her a house on their street was on fire.
They went outside and everywhere they looked they could see smoke. The air was filled with the odor of natural gas.
Because they have oil heat and electric appliances, they weren’t concerned about their own home, but quickly it became apparent that other homes in the neighborhood were in dire straits.
“I was standing at the end of my driveway and I looked to the left and you could see smoke from two houses, then looked to my right, and another house was on fire,” she said.
They walked down to the corner of Brookfield and Chester and saw a house on Brookfield was in flames. There were a couple of police officers but no firefighters had arrived yet.
They were told to evacuate, figuring it would only last a few hours and then they could return home.
That was Thursday. By Sunday, they were allowed back in.
“The Kennedy assassination, the shuttle Challenger blowing up, 9/11 and now the gas explosion — you know automatically where you were,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s one of those things.”
One of the things that comforted her during those initial hours of mayhem was seeing Mayor Dan Rivera on TV, talking about the disaster, even getting emotional about how his city was affected.
‘I wanted to rule it out’
Over the ensuing days, Mayor Rivera would indeed become the symbol for one struggling city and two damaged towns.
But the first couple of hours of the disaster, at least for Rivera, were kind of uneventful.
“I had signed up for a course on purchasing for the state,” he said.
He and his chief of staff at the time, Eileen Bernal, were in Boston in a classroom at 1 Ashburton Place, studying for the exam.
“It was on the last day of the course, we were taking the exam the next day,” he said.
Then he got a text from Vasque to call him.
“He was first person who told me,” Rivera said. “Then Bernal got a call from one of our aides, and we were off to the races.”
They abruptly left the classroom, got into their car and headed back to Lawrence, crawling along in heavy traffic.
“The whole time in the car, I was talking to Columbia Gas, the Water and Sewer Department, police,” he said. “A lot of people don’t remember, but almost four weeks earlier we had gas explosion in the North Common area where contractor digging a water line hit a gas line.”
He said he was trying to confirm if it was another one of those incidents.
“I wanted to rule it out,” he said.
It took time for him, and many others, to find out the true cause of the disaster and the damage it had caused.
Reporter Jessica Valeriani contributed to this story.