LAWRENCE — It's a rite of passage in suburban America: A driver's license means freedom to go anywhere on your time. Eighteen-year-old Leonel Rondon was celebrating that accomplishment when it was all taken away from him.
A chimney collapsed on the car he was sitting in, resulting in fatal injuries. It was one of the first explosions that would ultimately displace thousands of people due to a gas emergency in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover on Thursday.
Saturday, the Rondon family gathered in their home on Chestnut Street and people continued to file in and out of the house.
Leonel's mother and father, shell-shocked and grieving, declined to comment on their son's death.
"We just aren't ready yet," his sister said.
Police Chief Roy Vasque was among the first to respond to the Chickering Road House where Rondon was trapped in the RAV-4 he occupied with some friends. It was one of the first calls of dozens he would get Thursday reporting house fires and explosions caused by what officials say was an over-pressurized gas line.
The scene was shocking: The chimney from an adjoining house had collapsed on the car. Another victim, a girl, was trapped in the house, calling for help hysterically, Vasque said. Three other youths stood in the driveway, also hysterical but unharmed, Vasque said.
"He was totally entangled by the chimney," Vasque said. "Police and the Fire Department were able to extricate the woman from the front door. She had severe leg and ankle injuries. The male took longer. We had to use a pry bar to get him out."
Rondon was unconscious but alive. He was taken by ambulance to Lawrence General Hospital, then airlifted to a Boston hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was the only fatality in the Columbia Gas disaster.
After aiding rescue crews, Vasque said he and the other officers left for the next call.
"That's all we did all day," Vasque said. "Chase from call to call to call."
Rondon had been a junior at Phoenix Charter Academy on Essex Street in Lawrence, an alternative high school that targets students who do not excel in traditional classrooms. The school was closed Friday, but issued a statement saying staff and students were "deeply saddened by the loss of one of its members."
"Staff and students knew him as an outgoing, light-hearted, hands-on learner who particularly loved science and excelled in biology and math," the school said. "Teachers recall his drive to graduate as a model to classmates."
Over the next few days, grief counseling is being provided to the students at Phoenix Charter Academy and Lawrence High School. The counselors will be available at the Phoenix school.
Within hours of Rondon's death, tributes from his teachers and friends began showing up on social media sites.
A neighbor, Trudy Silvera, remembered Leonel as a nice boy.
"I knew him since he was small," she said, noting she'd lived on Chestnut Street since 1989.
"He was playful, very nice, always said 'hi,'" she said. "I went to see the parents, they are just devastated. I heard he was really good at science, and math, his friends said that."
Silvera said she slept on the couch downstairs Friday night, because she was so scared she might have to leave the house suddenly.
But despite the ongoing fear and uncertainty, parts of Lawrence were moving toward normalcy as best they could.
On Saturday, baseball teams played at the parks in the neighborhood, the familiar crack of wood connecting with horsehide and cheers occasionally ringing out through an otherwise quiet neighborhood shrouded in dense clouds.