LAWRENCE — When, in the afternoon of Sept. 13, Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty first got the call about house explosions and fires across the south side of his city, he was driving back up to the Merrimack Valley from Boston after taking an emergency medical service class, hoping to meet a few guys after work.
“I’m on my way,” Moriarty said, and immediately shifted gears.
He turned on his radio, and listened to the transmissions as they started to come in quick succession.
The fire department called North Andover and Andover — the first communities Lawrence turns to for mutual aid — only to find out they were dealing with the same thing: overpressurized gas lines caused multiple fires that day, injured dozens, and killed one young man from Lawrence.
Moriarty picked up his radio. Through the cacophony of transmissions from dispatchers and first responders, his voice remained unflustered.
“I just said: ‘Stay calm, we’re going to have a lot of calls,’” he recalled. “We deal in catastrophe. I knew I had to stay calm if they were going to be calm.”
A massive response
Moriarty, the head of emergency management for the city, issued a full recall for firefighters to come in to work, and coordinated the response from hundreds of additional resources in mutual aid.
Thursday evening, he worked with a crew to contain a fire at a triple-decker on Springfield Street, gave his mask to an off-duty firefighter who came in as soon as he heard what was happening, and planned to head to fires with no chief officer responding, when Mayor Daniel Rivera called him to the command center at the former Showcase Cinema on Route 114.
He left for work Thursday morning, and didn’t see his wife, Kim, until Sunday night. He is the fire chief, and she is the director of emergency services at Lawrence General Hospital — they both had work to do.
They kept in touch via text. After he appeared on TV for a press conference, he would check his phone and have messages from her, telling him to smile more.
That first weekend, Moriarty said 339 different resources from across the state came to assist Lawrence, Andover and North Andover: 180 engine companies, 68 ladder companies, 50 chief officers, more than 50 ambulances and 10 rehab units.
The response continues
Those are all gone now, replaced by plumbers, electricians, gas workers, and construction crews racing against the weather to get thousands of people back to relative normalcy.
“It’s pretty much been a nonstop event, even though the fires have stopped,” he said.
Most of those who live and work in South Lawrence — and thousands of people in the Andovers — remain without gas.
In the weeks after the initial blasts, Moriarty said the fire department has been inundated with gas-related calls.
Just Thursday, the fire department fielded two calls for gas odor in the city.
“There is a heightened awareness,” Moriarty said, “but they’re also not illegitimate. ... Most of them, there’s some smell of gas from something, whether it’s bad or minor, or part of the venting process.”
And, as gas crews replace 45 miles of pipeline and continue work inside homes, Moriarty said his department is dealing with the logistics of that.
“Mobility in South Lawrence is worse than it ever was for any Ben Affleck movie,” he said, referring to the 2015 film shoot in the city.
“We’re preparing for the fact that we may not be able to park at the house, we may have to stretch longer lines, we may have to carry ground ladders in,” he said. “I have more crews on the south side, we’re staffing more trucks.”
A different kind of disaster
Moriarty is no stranger to major events. He began his career in 1980 as a crash and structural firefighter in the United States Air Force, joined the Haverhill Fire Department in 1987 — rising in the ranks to deputy fire chief — before joining Lawrence as chief in 2015.
He’s been to oil refinery fires during his time in the service, responded as a paramedic to the Malden Mills textile plant fire in 1995, and has responded to countless major fires in the Merrimack Valley since then.
Still, he said the gas fires and their aftermath have presented different challenges to the people of Lawrence.
“This is a major logistical undertaking by gas professionals, civil engineers, but we’re trying to also make sure everybody stays safe. Their vast, major project is making our task just that much more difficult,” he said. “It’s getting cold; people need to stay warm ... we’ve got trailer parks on South Common and Pemberton Park and people there need to be protected.”
Heroic actions and a resilient community
At least three firefighters were injured in the initial response, and in the days that followed. Faced with chaotic scenes and long hours over the past weeks, Moriarty did not hesitate to sing praise of the fire department’s efforts.
“The guys have been awesome, and really stepped up. I’m very proud of their actions, some of them have been very heroic,” said Moriarty. “They’ve done an excellent job, and continue to do an excellent job.”
Moriarty said the people in South Lawrence have been gracious and patient, and thanked them for that.
“People on the south side, really people in the city and region should be commended,” he said. “There’s been donations, people working together, camaraderie ... this is the worst thing I’ve been through for a community, and it’s not over,” he said.
To those who continue to be affected by the gas disaster, Moriarty had one message: “We’re here for you, and we’ll do everything we can to keep you safe.”