DANVERS — Gov. Charlie Baker choked up Thursday morning as he talked about the response to the series of gas explosions and fires across three Merrimack Valley communities on the evening of Sept. 13, 2018.
Baker — who has been hands-on in the state’s response to the gas disaster — was at the Red Cross’ annual Heroes breakfast at the DoubleTree hotel in Danvers to present the American Red Cross of Massachusetts Award to local officials, police officers, firefighters, state lawmakers and Red Cross volunteers from Lawrence, Andover, North Andover and the greater Merrimack Valley who responded in the aftermath of the explosions.
“I’ve got to tell you that watching that video was actually not easy,” Baker said after a presentation that featured Red Cross volunteers and officials recounting how they came to the aid of thousands of people who were displaced in the sudden disaster that hit all three communities at once.
Baker paused and said, “When you are in the middle of it, you don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about how you feel about it. You just do stuff. I have to say that was actually hard for me to watch.”
The disaster, the ripple effects of which continue to this day, sent frightened residents out of their homes into the evening looking for shelter.
Baker recounted a lighter moment in the hours after, when he was visiting a Red Cross evacuation center set up at the Parthum School in South Lawrence. Most of those in the shelter spoke Spanish, he said.
“So, the mayor (Dan Rivera) would walk me around with him and he would talk to them and he would point at me, and they would laugh,” Baker said. “And I have no idea what he said. He made up a lot of stuff.”
“But, the really cool thing about it, and I said this to Lauren (Baker’s wife) when I got home: ‘It wasn’t just cots in a box. ... There were little neighborhoods that had been created in that gymnasium.’”
There were families, bored teenagers, senior citizens, and people with complicated medical and clinical issues, Baker said.
“I remember I got home ... this thing didn’t feel as institutional as I thought it would at all. There was this sort of comfort you could feel walking around in there,” he said.
He was also impressed by how many supplies were mustered in a short amount of time.
“And the Red Cross was a terrific partner to all three communities all the way through this,” Baker said.
One thing that impressed the governor the most was how so many police and fire departments from across Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire “just dropped whatever they were doing and came to the Showcase Cinema parking lot in Lawrence.”
He said the Lawrence, Andover and North Andover departments, working with state police and other organizations, did an unbelievable job, logistically, figuring out where to go and what to do. Time was critical. By midnight, the power had been shut down, and street and traffic lights were out.
“We needed people to go where they needed to go with some understanding about what their role and their responsibility was and then to act on it,” Baker said.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency was in a position to have contracts in place ready to go, he said, and many of those who responded knew one another and how to work together. Relationships mattered in getting everyone on the same page.
“And to the folks from Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, I can’t tell you how amazed I was by the resiliency and sense of community that people brought to this,” Baker said.
Wearing an orange vest Thursday morning, David Reed, 68, of Haverhill, accepted the award on behalf of 275 Red Cross volunteers and staff who responded to the gas explosions.
Reed worked the registration desk and in the dormitory at the Parthum School where Baker had visited.
He was put to work registering people as soon as he arrived.
“I’m bilingual, so I had to interpret quickly for people that were coming in to look for shelter,” said Reed, who worked at the shelter for the four days it was open.
Everyone knew their roles and worked well together, he said.
“For a volunteer organization,” Reed said, “it was really an amazing effort on everybody’s part.”
Accepting the award for firefighters was Lawrence fire Chief Brian Moriarty, Andover fire Chief Michael Mansfield and North Andover deputy fire Chief Graham Rowe, on behalf of North Andover fire Chief William McCarthy and North Andover Emergency Manager Jeffrey Coco.
For police, it was Andover Chief Patrick Keefe, Lawrence Chief Roy Vasque and North Andover Chief Charles Gray.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, Andover Selectman Alexander Vispoli, and North Andover Selectman Regina Kean also accepted the award on behalf of officials from the three communities.
Lawmakers recognized with the award were state Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover; Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester; former state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport; state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen; state Rep. Juana Matias, D-Lawrence; state Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence; and former state Rep. James Lyons, R-Andover.
Lawrence General Hospital was also honored for its efforts.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.