She wanted to die at home ... then the fire started

MIKE SPRINGER/Staff photo Sisters Penny Young, left, and Jennifer Lampman stay by the bedside of their mother, Debra Mordente, 63, on Wednesday at the Merrimack Valley Hospice's High Pointe House in Haverhill. Mordente, who has cancer, had wanted to die at home in Lawrence but the plan was changed when her house was involved in a gas explosion last week. 

LAWRENCE — Jennifer Lampman has dreams in which she touches the walls around her. She touches them cautiously, waiting to feel heat, or to hear the sizzling sound that haunts her now. 

When she wakes, Lampman remembers the explosion that seared that sizzle into her mind. She was in the shower, preparing to leave her ailing mother's house for the airport so she could return to Chicago for a few days before coming back to her mother's bedside.

The boom she heard as she turned off the water was followed seconds later by her sister's screams. Wrapping a towel around herself, Lampman bounded down the stairs and looked at her mother's hospice bed. It was empty. 

Then Penny Young, Lampman's twin, sprinted back into the house from the front door. The sisters' eyes locked as Young screamed that there was a fire; but even then, Lampman hadn't grasped the gravity of the situation. A kitchen fire, she assumed. The lasagna Young had been baking must be burning. 

In the kitchen, Lampman saw no flames. Then she turned her head toward the utility closet a few feet left of the fridge, where a swirling inferno had spontaneously appeared just seconds before.

"The air was on fire," Lampman said. She sprinted upstairs to clothe herself, ducking beneath the thick, black cloud of smoke that had already covered the ceiling of the second floor and was billowing out of the air vents. She doesn't remember feeling the heat then, but she remembers the smoke and how quickly she started coughing. Then she ran outside.

Young was no more than five feet from the utility closet door when the furnace exploded into a fireball. Had the door been open more than the six inches it was, the fire would have engulfed her, she said. If the door had been completely closed, she suspects the resulting explosion might have been much larger. 

For the briefest seconds, Young watched the flames spread and wondered if she should try to put them out or get her cancer-stricken mother to safety. But then she remembered that the gas stove hadn't been working a moment ago, and she knew the fire before her was being fed by fuel. So she grabbed her mother and ran her outside in a wheelchair.

20 Wedgewood Road

Debra Mordente was adamant that she receive hospice care at her home, but a fire fueled by the Merrimack Valley's massive gas leak destroyed her house on Wedgewood Road.

Debra Mordente, the twins' mother, is 63. She was just diagnosed with an aggressive form of carcinoma that had already spread to her brain and her spine in July. After she suffered a stroke last month, Mordente decided to halt treatment and had only one request: she wanted to die at home.

Now, Mordente and her daughters were on the lawn of 20 Wedgewood Drive, watching the smoke pour from the roof. At 4:18 p.m., barely more than a minute after the furnace exploded, Young tried to call 911 — but the lines were busy. Helicopters were already circling overhead. A neighbor was jumping the neighbors' fences, sprinting from yard to yard to shut off each home's gas. Lampman burst through her neighbor's door to scream at the woman to grab her newborn baby and get out.

"I finally did get through to 911 ... and she said, 'Ma'am, there's 20 reported explosions in the area. I don't have any more trucks,'" Young said.

Watching the helicopters, waiting for a firetruck that would never come, Lampman thought of Hurricane Katrina, "of the people with the white sheets: 'SEND HELP.'"

Fifteen minutes after the initial explosion, another boom rattled the house when the water heater exploded. Thirty minutes after the initial explosion, Stanley Rowe, Mordente's roommate and "faux" son, arrived at the house. Forty-five minutes after the initial explosion, an ambulance was evacuating Mordente with her daughters and Rowe right behind her.

Still, the firefighters had not come.

For 45 minutes, the family watched helplessly as everything Mordente owned — the very place she wanted to die — went up in smoke. 

"The only control she had left over her life, which was to choose to die at home, was now burning away. That was the only decision she really had left to make in this world and now she was probably sitting there thinking, 'I don't want to go back to the hospital,'" Lampman said. 

After several hours of agonizing waiting, Lampman, Young, Rowe and Mordente's sister, Alicia Shalhoup, got word that Mordente was being transported from Lawrence General Hospital to High Pointe House, a hospice home in Haverhill. The crew arrived feeling wary, expecting a run-down nursing home, but were relieved to find the space comfortable. The staff, Rowe said, were an "army of angels."

The group had an emotional, tear-filled reunion at High Pointe at about midnight. 

"She saw us and she broke down crying and the three of us, like, threw ourselves on her and we were like, 'We're OK,' and she was saying 'It's gone, it's all gone,' and we're like, 'No, we're here, we're together,'" Lampman said. 

Rowe said that then, for the first time that day, "a wave of calm washed over me."

After the fire, High Pointe has allowed the whole family to stay at the home with Mordente. Rowe lost his home too, and Lampman, Young and Shalhoup are all from out of state. The family could not say enough about what the hospice service has done for them, from providing shelter to procuring insurance paperwork to outfitting the family with toiletries and other necessities.

Mordente, who before the incident was doing well, likely doesn't have much time left. 

"At the end of the day," Lampman said, "this fire is going to rob us of time with our mom."

As they sat at High Pointe on Wednesday, Mordente lying under a quilt listening to the Beatles, the girls lamented the items they lost in the fire. Mordente's home was affectionately referred to by family as the "gift shop," because of the troves of treasures she had amassed there: art, trinkets, photographs. But her most prized possessions, by far, were limited edition lithograph prints of John Lennon's sketches.

"My mom was the fifth Beatle," Young explained. Throughout their lives, the twins often heard their mother tell them that if there were ever a fire, they needed to grab the Lennon prints — always the Lennon prints — always in the hypothetical. 

A few minutes after she sprinted from the house, Lampman noticed her sneakers sitting in the open doorway. She was barefoot, and the shoes were right there, so she decided she could grab them. As she reached inside the door, she could see straight through to the back of the house. She could see the Lennon prints. 

Lampman took a step into the inferno and was engulfed in an eerie silence. She took another step, feeling as though she could hear a pin drop. The smoke upstairs was thick, but on the first floor, the house seemed passable. She took two more steps. Then she heard the sizzle. 

"And my ear tuned into it, and I remember looking at the Lennon prints and just backing out of the house, like no. I can't do that," she said.

"That sound will never, ever, ever leave my head."

Recommended for you