A knock on the door wakes up Omayra Figueroa. It’s Leonel. On the front stoop. Of course. Leonel is an honorary Figueroa. His mother often jokes to Omayra about moving his bed there.
Shakira, Omayra’s twenty-one-year-old daughter, throws on some clothes and joins him outside in the sun. It’s beautiful out, 70 degrees. The Figueroas—Omayra, her three children: Shakira; Christian, twenty; and Sergio, seventeen—moved to this working-class neighborhood of Cape-style single-family homes in 2013. It sits just around the corner from a strip mall and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but Colonial Heights feels like its own little world, less than a square mile, green and still. Oak trees arc over hushed streets. Over eighty years, Colonial Heights has become increasingly diverse—Latin American and southeast Asian names showing up on mailboxes alongside the Irish and Italian ones.
Thirty-five Chickering Road is the first property that Omayra has ever owned—her castle, she calls it, big and bright, filled with plants she spends time tending to. She got a basketball hoop for her boys, and solar panels on the roof. She loves gathering family and friends for boisterous barbecues in the backyard, with Puerto Rican specialties she cooks herself and lots of music. She has maintained the house’s siding in the preppy, two-tone color scheme found on many suburban homes in Massachusetts, a deep gray trimmed in white. The house makes her feel happy and safe: It has withstood sixty-two years of New England weather—blizzards, ice storms, floods. It can hold the Figueroas, she figures.
At this time of day, the elm tree next to the front walk casts the entire house into shadow. The pink rosebush beside the brick front stoop waits for the sun. Shakira slides out onto the stoop, and there she sits with Leonel and a friend who’s accompanied him today, talking about things she won’t remember later.
Bare feet up on the stoop, no need to do anything or be anywhere, just blinking yourself awake in the sun, like a cat.
From the gas meter in Omayra Figueroa’s castle, a steel pipe at least a half inch in diameter descends into the earth and elbows at 90 degrees toward Chickering Road, connecting to the main line that carries natural gas into her home. The gas heats Omayra’s hot water, dries her family’s sheets and towels, warms her radiators on New England winter mornings, and flares blue, orange, and yellow through the burners of the stove when she cooks rice and beans for the kids.
From Chickering, the gas main runs in a two-foot-wide corridor below the roadways on the surface, according to Audrey Schulman, executive director of HEET—the Home Energy Efficiency Team—a nonprofit that has done work mapping gas leaks. A sprawling underground network connects to the intermediate line, then to the high-pressure interstate pipelines that funnel natural gas into Massachusetts, the majority of it from the rich fossil-fuel deposits of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. Four thousand nine hundred eighty-nine and a half miles of gas-main lines of the state’s underground pipeline network belongs to a utility company called Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. A subsidiary of the utilities giant NiSource, Columbia Gas runs its gas through some of the nation’s oldest pipelines. These aging pipes are made of cast iron, a brittle metal with a low pressure tolerance. In the Northeast, earth resettles after freezing and thawing, a phenomenon known as frost heave. This can cause ruptures in fragile, old pipes. Massachusetts, with an average winter temperature of 27.6, has the third-most cast-iron pipeline miles of any state in the nation. Like other utility companies across the Northeast, Columbia Gas has been steadily replacing its vulnerable cast-iron gas mains, from 833 miles in 2005 to 471.4 in 2017. Its pipeline system is a patchwork of materials from different eras—cast iron, bare steel, and plastic—each with its own tolerance. For cast iron, it’s 0.5 psi, roughly the pressure required to blow up a toy balloon. For bare steel, it’s 60 psi or higher, and for plastic, 100 psi. At different points in the system, valves regulate gas pressure in accordance with the tolerance of each segment of pipeline.
The explosion turned the room sideways. She yells the names of her children, and finally hears her daughter's screams.
Columbia Gas repairs more than 1,200 leaks annually. Last April, it reported that 15 percent of its lines in Massachusetts were “leak prone” due to issues like rust, corrosion, and failed welds. Since the deregulation of the gas industry in 1997, state and federal oversight of this infrastructure has been limited. The process is heavily reliant on self-reporting, with utilities performing their own safety inspections, and federal or state inspectors making spot checks. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities has only two engineers conducting field inspections of the state’s 21,714.5 miles of gas main. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has no power to impose a deadline for pipeline replacement.
In recent years, the Department of Public Utilities has fined Columbia Gas tens of thousands of dollars for a variety of safety violations, The Boston Globe has reported, including: “faulty pressure testing and response procedures, insufficiently covering new service lines, improperly classifying leaks, and breaking rules around the use of leak repair kits.”
Even though only 2 percent of distribution mains nationwide are made of cast iron, they accounted for 41 percent of all fatalities involving gas lines between 2005 and 2017. Twenty states in the U.S. have eliminated cast iron from their networks altogether.
A mile north of Omayra Figueroa’s home, on the Salem Street side of the O’Connell South Common, a public park, a contractor removes a length of cast-iron pipe, caps it, and sets it aside.
Feeney Brothers Utility Services (“Providing Underground Utility Services since 1988”) has a permit to open up a two-foot-wide, 340-foot-long stretch of Salem Street, for the purpose of “completing gas main tie-ins and retirement of dual cast-iron gas mains.” Feeney Brothers is a family-owned operation with seven hundred employees. They’ve worked extensively not only for Columbia Gas but also for the region’s other major natural-gas supplier, Eversource. In recent years, gas utilities in Massachusetts have increasingly relied on contractors to carry out projects like this.
The job today is to install new polyethylene pipeline and tie it into a new distribution main, also plastic. The Feeney Brothers contractor may or may not be aware that a regulator sensing line—a gauge that measures gas pressure—is attached to the pipe he had discarded. But it’s important to note that he and his crew are performing their duties as directed, under Columbia Gas supervision, and correctly following the steps in the work package Columbia Gas developed and approved. Columbia Gas’s work order doesn’t mention the sensor and was not prepared by a professional engineer. Until four years ago, a technician from the Meter and Regulation Department would have been assigned to the site to monitor pressure readings on the affected section of gas main, but Columbia Gas, for undisclosed reasons, has ended this practice.
The sensor on the discarded length of pipe thinks it’s still measuring the gas pressure in a vast underground network. In fact, it is measuring nothing: The pipe has been disconnected from the network. The sensor might as well be attached to a hot dog. But the sensor doesn’t know any of that, and there is no other sensor in this segment of the network to contradict it.
The sensor sends a message to the regulator valves in this segment of the network: Boost the pressure! Which they do. But the sensor, because it’s still attached to the dead piece of pipe, doesn’t detect any of that. Instead, it registers a pressure drop, all the way down to 0.01 psi. More pressure, it tells the valves, until they have opened completely, and two distribution systems that were supposed to be segregated, cordoned off from each other, are instead tied directly into each other for twenty-six minutes.
A wave of high-pressure gas rushes into the regional gas-main system that serves Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. In the older cast-iron segments of the network, the pressure rises to at least 6 psi, twelve times what the pipes are capable of handling.
At 4:04 p.m., the first high-pressure alarm is received by the NiSource monitoring station—in Columbus, Ohio. A second alarm is received at 4:05 p.m.
In the control room in Ohio, the NiSource employees have no capacity to control, let alone shut down, the gas flow. They can only contact the Meters and Regulations Group at Columbia Gas, which at 4:06 p.m. dispatches its entire team of inspectors to investigate—a total of two people, or approximately one per 2,494.75 miles of pipe.
Lawrence firefighter Jimmy Quinn, riding in Engine No. 5, has just closed an emergency call for an elderly man who had fallen in his bathroom.
The radio in Engine No. 5 crackles: Attention all companies, alarm and fire, sending out to Box 6111. Reported address is 35 Phillips Street, located between Farnham Street and Andover Street. Engine 9, Engine 5, Ladder 4, Rescue 1. The response—two engines, a ladder, and a rescue vehicle—is standard for a one-alarm fire. These calls come in all the time. But as Engine No. 5 crosses the Merrimack River toward the Box 6111 section of South Lawrence, Quinn notices several police cars flying past, all heading in the same direction. Something big is happening. Maybe somebody shot somebody and lit the house on fire, he thinks.
That’s how the job goes. The city of Boston has four thousand structure fires a year. Lawrence? There were seventy-four in 2017. So you train, and you practice, and you make sure you know what to do when the big call comes. Mostly, though, it doesn’t. Your shifts are filled with small runs—a man who fell in the bathroom, something that burned in the oven, a worrisome smell in the church basement. The type of stuff you’ve already forgotten by the time you get home and open a beer, or down the coffee your wife made while you helped get the kids ready for school.
At the scene, Quinn finds members of Engine Company No. 39, who’d gotten there first. They were already finishing up—no shouting, no one running around. Just a fellow firefighter putting away his wrench. There’d been some heat and light smoke in the basement, they said. They’d shut off the gas. A quarter turn of a bolt, easy as screwing the lid on the peanut butter .
Inside her house, Omayra tidies up the clutter that accumulates in a house on a summer day when the kids are home—the magazines on the living-room couch, the lunch plates ready for the dishwasher, the sneakers under the dining-room table. In the basement, a load of laundry sloshes in the washer.
Leonel and her sons will be hungry soon—Leonel ends up at their table all the time, he is like another son to her—so she puts rice and beans on the stove. She and Shakira take turns showering. The two of them are going to eat at a Mexican restaurant in nearby Lowell that Omayra likes; on Thursdays there is live mariachi. Omayra runs the clothes dryer. She takes the beans off the gas and stirs the rice.
Even if there really is a fire in her building—a century-old, six-unit wood-frame triple-decker—they seem to have caught it early, Jenny Caceres thinks. She can hear sirens approaching, which reassures her.
A few minutes earlier, she’d been trying to scramble some eggs, but the burners on her stove sputtered and wouldn’t ignite. Then the landlord came to her door to tell her and her two teenage daughters to evacuate the building immediately. The gas meter in the basement was spinning around uncontrollably, he said—like a cartoon. Outside the building, Jenny sees one of her neighbors from the third floor emerge wearing only a towel. He’d been taking a bath, he tells her, when he heard something in the kitchen go pop! He thought it might have been the boiler. The man in the towel runs back inside to collect his clothes, then out again.
Smoke begins puffing up from beneath the eaves of the building. The sirens get louder and louder, until the fire engine reaches Jenny’s corner.
"We contacted Andover. They are having the same issue. They cannot send a response." —Dispatch, Lawrence Fire Department, to deputy chief, radio communication
The Lawrence Fire Department operates out of five stations covering six square miles of land divided by the Merrimack River. When it makes its standard response to a single-alarm fire, like the one at 35 Phillips Street, it has in reserve only one pump and one ladder to cover the rest of the city.
There are now at least five fires burning at once. Chief Brian Moriarty, directing the department’s response from Car 20, calls for backup, known as mutual aid, from the neighboring communities of Andover and North Andover. Customarily, the chiefs of those departments will send men and machines to Lawrence, then backfill their resources from departments next door. But the Lawrence dispatcher reports that neither Andover nor North Andover can send mutual aid because they too are dealing with multiple simultaneous fires.
Mutual aid wasn’t designed for this kind of situation. Rather than sharing resources, the three towns are effectively competing for them.
Quinn and the firefighters work their way toward Springfield’s western end, putting out four basement fires, one after another. People are flagging them down in the street, arms waving, reporting new fires the dispatcher didn’t even know about. It is exhausting. Firefighters are, in a sense, tactical athletes. Twenty minutes in a house fire can require the same amount of energy most people push out in an eight-hour workday.
Normally, you get to a house fire and there’s probably a frantic resident—the homeowner, a neighbor, somebody yelling. Panicking. You run interference, you calm them down, you gently—professionally—ease them out of the way. And then, afterward, when the fire is nothing but a bad smell, and you’ve saved the day, they want to hug you. None of that happened on this day. There was no time. No niceties, no “I’m sorry, ma’am,” no “Happy to help, sir.” It was: Get in, get out, get to the next one. Firefighters say a fire doubles in size every minute. Jenny Caceres isn’t sure how long her building has been burning before Engine No. 5 reaches it—fifteen minutes? twenty?—but by then thick smoke is pouring from beneath its roof.
The three-story structure looks familiar to Quinn, and then he remembers: In 2008, a massive blaze destroyed fourteen buildings in this neighborhood. The fire department had made its last stand right here, at this address. They had not only beaten back the fire, they had saved the building.
The difference was this: In 2008, Quinn was one of forty firefighters on scene. Today, he is one of three.
Lawrence’s housing stock, mostly wooden triple-deckers and two-family houses, was built a hundred years ago for the city’s mill workers. The houses go right down the street—rows and rows of them, spaced so close together a man can barely walk between them with his shoulders squared.
Buildings in the region were framed balloon style: Builders threw up two-by-fours around the perimeter, then tied the floors into each story. That’s different from housing construction today, which is platformed: You build an eight-foot wall, build the floor on top of it, then tie it into the wall. You build the next floor on top of that. Every platform is effectively a fire-stop. In a balloon-frame structure, a fire that starts in the basement and gets into the chase space can run all the way to the cockloft—the cramped, unusable space between the topmost ceiling of a building and the roof—without any fire-stop in between. It will blow straight out the roof before any of the floors in between catch fire. A basement fire effectively turns the entire building into a chimney.
Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield is a couple miles outside of town, heading home, when the call comes in over the radio from Grassfields restaurant—a stove fire that will quickly be extinguished by staff. Almost immediately afterward there is a barrage of calls for fires in and around downtown.
The dispatcher is reporting that North Andover and Lawrence are experiencing the same event. And that’s when all hell broke loose. At 4:50 p.m., in the kitchen of Bueno Malo, a restaurant in Andover, a gas burner shoots a flame ten feet into the air.
Mansfield glances into his side-view mirror as he enters town on Route 28 and sees smoke billowing from buildings in Lawrence. He gets on the radio and orders a dispatcher to send out a Code Red, summoning all off-duty firefighters to their respective stations.
In the Shawsheen neighborhood, he finds Engine No. 1 and an ambulance at a house fire. A state trooper approaches him. Did Mansfield remember the situation in Danvers a while back? The gas over-pressurization situation? This sounds like something similar, doesn’t it? Mansfield has had the same thought.
Within the first ten or twelve minutes, the Andover Fire Department—three engines, one aerial ladder, and two ambulances—has run out of resources. Mansfield puts out the call to MEMA, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Authority, to initiate the statewide fire mobilization plan—to send over bodies and trucks ASAP.
Flowing at a rate above 1 psi, natural gas can blow out appliances and force its way into basements, kitchens, and laundry rooms. Methane is about twice as light as dry air, so it will drift upward until, like a balloon against a ceiling, it bumps up against an impassable barrier. Then it will begin to collect.
Nothing will happen immediately, because the methane is leaking out of the house (which isn’t airtight) at the same time. To compensate for this, and to reach the concentration level required for ignition—between 5 and 15 percent—the gas has to stream into the house at a significantly high flow rate. It can take hours for the gas to reach that concentration level—or minutes. What if it does?
There are so many ignition sources in an ordinary household. All that’s required is a tiny spark—from a pilot light, or someone turning on a burner on a stove, even a thermostat switching on. The most powerful reactions occur if ignition takes place not at the instant the methane level crosses 5 percent, but at the “butter zone,” 9 percent.
A sphere of flame appears. It swells rapidly to fill the space, consuming the methane-laced air all around it. But this isn’t the explosion; rather, it’s the detonator—for a trail of carbon dioxide gas and water vapor heated to over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In the flame’s wake, these gases accelerate to extraordinary speeds, up to two and three kilometers per second, in all directions. They will burst through practically anything that tries to contain them—sealed walls, windows, a roof. Houses these days tend to be built, or modified, for energy efficiency. The same insulated windows that help methane warm up your home can also help methane blow up your home.
On September 13, a house was likely to be safe only if it had been upgraded from the low-pressure system. Upgraded service lines had pressure-regulating valves installed on them.
A gas-valve regulator is a funny-looking little device that resembles an iron UFO balanced on its edge. It’s installed on the service line just before it reaches your meter (and your home). Inside the valve’s disc-shaped housing, a stopper is backed by a stiff metal coil. Gas pressures above an adjustable set pressure—typically, 1 psi—will force the stopper upward, compressing the coil and modulating gas flow.
An excess-flow valve is installed on the service line underground, near the line’s intersection with the gas main. The moment gas pressure exceeds a certain psi, the valve slams shut.
If Columbia Gas had upgraded your street, your gas main would be running at well above 0.5 psi. But your appliances aren’t rated at levels higher than 1 psi, so to protect them from damage, the company would have furnished you with a gas-valve regulator or an excess-flow valve.
If your street’s infrastructure hadn’t been upgraded, though, the neighborhood main was probably running at 0.5 psi, same as in your house. But rather than issue individual safety valves to every customer in its low-pressure network, Columbia Gas had set up fourteen regulator stations, each one controlling gas pressure for many customers at once. The regulator stations took their marching orders from sensors like the one the contractor had just pulled out of a trench on Salem Street.
While Omayra and Shakira get dressed to go out for dinner, the boys—Omayra’s two sons, Christian and Sergio; Leonel, hanging around the Figueroas’ as usual; and another friend—sit in Christian’s silver Honda CR-V, listening to music. When you’re seventeen, eighteen, twenty, and it’s a sunny afternoon, no homework, just the scruffy, lazy end of a long summer, that’s what young men do—they sit in a guy’s car, listening to music, talking about which girls are going to look good after three months on the North Shore beaches, talking about going to get a hamburger, talking about nothing, talking about everything.
By rights Christian sits in the driver’s seat, but Leonel asks if they can switch places. Leonel has come to the Figueroa house directly from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, where he picked up his driver’s license, and it’s time to take the shine off of it, he says, even if all that means is just sitting at the wheel. Christian is protective of his car, so even though he agrees to switch places with Leonel, he doesn’t actually move all the way over to the passenger side. Instead, he sits watchfully on the console, while Leonel takes the driver’s seat.
Omayra goes into the second-floor bathroom and puts her phone on the sink. In her bedroom on the first floor, Shakira plugs her phone into its charger and plays a K-pop album so she can listen to music while she puts on her makeup. She turns to the mirror.
The impact of the explosion throws Omayra off her feet. The room has been turned on its side—one of its walls is now the ceiling. Omayra tries to open the door, but something is blocking it. She can hear and feel all of the alarms sounding throughout the house. She thinks Lawrence must have been hit by an earthquake.
She yells out the names of her children; no one answers. She pushes and pushes until she forces open the jammed door. Now she can hear Shakira downstairs, calling for help. Omayra yells to her daughter to get out of the house—to jump out the window. She thinks Shakira can safely do that from her bedroom on the first floor.
Amid the distorted angles of the collapsed house, Omayra struggles across piles of debris until she reaches what she thinks is the second-floor hallway. When Shakira cries out a third time, Omayra has to fling herself toward the sound of her daughter’s voice, because the staircase is gone.
She finds Shakira lying on her back in what had been her bedroom, trapped beneath what appears to be the collapsed door frame. A bare bone juts from one of her legs, filthy with rubble. It isn’t white, the way you’d think a bone would be. Omayra crouches beside her daughter and slowly, gently, begins to clean the wound.
When Quinn and another firefighter kick in the door, they see that the whole second floor is going. The kitchen, in the back of the apartment, is fully involved—on fire from wall to wall. They can’t go any higher in the building until they deal with this. They grab a standard line—an inch and three-quarters, 200 feet long—pull it up the stairs, and tell the driver to charge it.
They manage to knock the fire down, which allows them to safely evacuate the last remaining people on the third floor. There is no time for anyone to collect their belongings. From across the street, at the R Arias Market, where the people in this building buy milk and bread and Gatorade and lottery tickets, the manager sees people he recognizes running—streaming out of the building, “saving nothing but their lives.” Though at first the firefighters seem to be having some success on the third floor, the situation changes: It becomes an exterior fire, meaning it has a fuel source—leaking gas. You can keep hitting that kind of fire, but it’s not going to go out.
When the fire reaches the cockloft, the top of the roof explodes and shoots out flames. The chief orders his men out of the building. Inside, in the narrow stairwell, it is so hot and smoky that the last two firefighters clearing the building get tangled up and fall down the stairs. They are rushed to the hospital.
Moriarty had put out a call for a second pump to station itself behind the building, and one finally arrives. “Lay in the alleyway,” he says. “You gotta use your gun from the back of the building.” They get the deck gun up—a mounted rotating high-pressure hose—and start pummeling the building.
Jenny Caceres watches from the street—frozen. Numb, even. She and her kids ran out of their apartment so fast that her younger daughter, who is barefoot, hadn’t even had time to grab her shoes. Her older daughter, who’s eighteen, forgot the glass eye she has worn every day since she was nine.
Officer Ivan Soto is in the interview room at the Lawrence Police Department. Cinder-block walls, thick white paint, gray floor. Across a laminate-topped table sits a woman, a victim of domestic violence—he is walking her through the process of securing a restraining order. Suddenly, his radio, which he’d kept on at a low volume, crackles in the background.
A fire. The door flies open. That’s unusual, to be interrupted during a sensitive conversation like this one. It’s his sergeant, who tells him to drive to South Lawrence right away.
That isn’t what you want to hear as an officer—you want to get where you’re going as efficiently as you can. But Soto hops into his cruiser, lights and sirens. Glancing at the map on his onboard computer, he sees it says FIRE in at least thirty different places.
Its massive weight makes a chimney stable. That weight pushes down much harder vertically than most forces that might want to push it horizontally, like a hurricane. As long as that equation holds, so does the chimney.
But an explosion is much stronger than a chimney is heavy. The walls of 35 Chickering Road give before they blow out: Wood, as a material, has significant elasticity. Masonry has far less. When the shock wave crashes into the right side of the house, the chimney absorbs most of its force.
The chimney kicks away from the house. The energy it absorbed is translated into torque, which travels from the strong, broad base of the chimney to the narrow upper portion, which has less weight above it to protect it.
The chimney is coming apart now. Like a whip cracking, it throws off a chunk of masonry that flies into the air, coming apart into at least two pieces as angular rotational forces continue to work on it. The smaller pieces land harmlessly on the driveway. The largest piece crashes down onto the roof of the silver CR-V.
The impact is like a head-on collision at high speed, but from an angle that no car-safety advocate or automobile designer could ever plan for. Chimneys aren’t built to withstand explosions, and car roofs aren’t built to repel falling blocks of masonry.
DEPUTY CHIEF TO DISPATCH: We have one person taken out of the house. We have one entrapped in the vehicle. We need EMS here immediately. —Lawrence Fire Department radio communication
Lawrence Chief of Police Roy Vasque is first on the scene. He looks around at the debris everywhere. He smells gas.
Chief Vasque had heard about these things in the past, whole neighborhoods wiped out. There is, he believes, the possibility of more explosions.
He gets to work. The house looks like a ship that a storm seized and smashed against the shore. You can barely distinguish between the structure and the things that used to be inside. A gray mass has been disgorged onto the front yard—furniture, tufts of insulation, shards of wood and drywall, grotesque tangles of electrical wire.
Neighbors spill out of their houses onto the street—people who had been making dinner or getting ready to go to work. They have bewilderment and fear on their faces. Vasque yells at them to leave the area.
Some people by the destroyed house see him and run over. They are screaming, in hysterics; he has difficulty making sense of what they are saying. Soon Vasque understands: Somebody is trapped in the vehicle.
Shakira closes her eyes when she feels herself falling. Everything goes dark. It all happens in an instant. She isn’t sure where she lands. When she opens her eyes, she sees dust and insulation floating in the air around her, like a snowfall out of season.
Her house. These walls had held her family together these last years, when other families might have come apart. Shakira used to have a twin. Joshua. When they were thirteen, there was this one morning in May when a bunch of kids were playing down in the Merrimack River, not far from the house, like they always did. There was an accident, and Joshua drowned. The pain was almost unbearable, and yet the family endured. Chickering Road, this house where they moved afterward—it was where they had started over. She sees a jagged hole in her bedroom wall—a way outside. Shakira tries to get to her feet, but she can’t feel her legs. She can’t feel anything. Looking down at the lower half of her body, she sees the exposed bone protruding near her right ankle.
The fire alarms won’t stop, and the noise is making her feel like she is going insane. A fever dream. She thinks the house is going to fall on top of her, or catch on fire. She starts yelling for her mother.
Then her mother is beside her, trying to lift her, or at least drag her to safety. They both scream for help. A policeman appears, holds her from the back and two firefighters hold her legs, and they carry her across the street and put her on a stretcher. They ask her for her name and her age.
"All [off-duty] firefighters return to work. You’re hearing this on the scanner, come to work." —radio announcement, Chief Brian Moriarty, Lawrence Fire Department
Crouched on top of the hood of the SUV in the driveway, looking through its windshield, Officer Soto sees that the boy’s eyes are closed. The impact has forced him backward, with the chimney covering the lower part of his body. Soto thinks he is dead, but another cop tells him the boy has a pulse and had been conscious a few minutes earlier. Soto and at least five other men grab the chimney, their hands digging into the brick, and lift with everything they have—all their strength, all their will, as if the whole world has been reduced to this task. They lift like it was their own boy trapped.
It is too heavy. It is only now, standing amid the rubble on the front lawn, that Omayra smells gas for the first time—such an intense concentration of it that she begins coughing and tearing up. She vomits.
When she looks up, she sees paramedics on the curb tending to Christian, whose entire left side is streaming with blood. Other paramedics are working on Shakira on the far side of the street. Beyond her, down the street, Omayra sees the strangest thing: the curtains from her daughter’s bedroom. Is that what those are? Can’t be. They were blown by the force of the explosion all the way to the stop sign on Chickering Road, had to be four hundred yards away.
Sergio, her youngest, runs toward her. “Mommy,” he says. “Leonel won’t come out of the car. The chimney just fell on him.”
Firefighters using pry bars are finally able to shift the massive section of the chimney off of Christian’s car. They remove Leonel and immediately, right there in the driveway, paramedics begin giving him CPR.
Officer Soto calls his wife and daughters to make sure they are all right. He is on foot now, supervising the evacuation of houses nearby.
With one hand, Soto waves nervous residents away from their homes, nodding his head as they stumble toward safety. With his other hand, he holds his iPhone to his ear. He stops. Cops aren’t supposed to show their emotions, but he must be showing his, because another cop comes up to him, concerned.
This was his family’s first real home, bought in 2015 in a neighborhood called Mount Vernon. A ranch house around sixty years old, with a bright red door and an in-ground pool. Lawrence can be a tough city, but if you work hard and you end up in Mount Vernon? You’ve made it. Soto’s fifteen-year-old daughter runs out of a neighbor’s house across the street and into his arms. She is in tears, and so, for a moment, is he. She says she felt an explosion directly below her room while she was talking with her mother on the phone, and she just ran.
She is terrified but she is safe. Not only safe. Lucky, he thinks. I just saw a young man crushed by a chimney.
The fire is still in its early stages, but Soto knows there aren’t enough fire trucks. He says to himself, Accept it now. Don’t let it drag. Just accept it now that it’s gone.
He kisses his daughter, gets in his cruiser, and goes back to work, while his house burns to the ground.
At 5:33 p.m., at the request of elected and public-safety officials, National Grid, the electrical utility, begins shutting down power to eighteen thousand customers in Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence. At 6:10, the State Police tweets an evacuation order for Columbia Gas customers in the three affected towns. But North Lawrence, across the Merrimack River, is exempted—its gas network doesn’t connect with the over-pressurized segment of pipeline. Throughout the night, there is an exodus from south to north, a procession of silhouettes crossing the 610-foot Duck Bridge on foot. Bearing sleeping bags, suitcases stuffed with clothes, whatever they can carry—valuable things, sentimental things. That old question, what would you grab in a fire? Heading for one of the two schools that have been opened as temporary shelters.
At about 8:30, Soto’s commanding officer orders him to go be with his family. Since the Sotos no longer have a home, a friend puts them up at a Hampton Inn in Amesbury, about half an hour away. The first thing Soto sees when he enters the lobby is a big-screen TV, and the first thing he sees on the TV is an image of fire thickly boiling out of a house. His house.
Later that night, as he’s trying to sleep in an unfamiliar bed in a room with gray walls and wall sconces and an ironing board hanging in the closet, he is overcome by pain in his neck and shoulders. He can’t figure out why. Then Veronica, his wife, reminds him how hard he had tried to lift the chimney off that boy.
At 7 a.m., the evacuation order is lifted. The power is restored, but not the gas. There is still a risk for further fires and explosions. Many residents return to their homes, but others never will.
At the height of the emergency, the three towns called in every available off-duty firefighter, upward of 150 in all, as well as the largest mutual-aid response in state history: over 1,000 firefighters and 339 emergency vehicles—engines, ladders, rehab units, heavy-rescue squads, and command chiefs, along with an unknown number of private ambulances. These resources came from as far away as York, Maine, and Nashua, New Hampshire, and responded to more than 375 calls in the first eight hours after the over-pressurization. Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover suffered a total of 141 fires and five building explosions, with one death and at least twenty-one people transported to the hospital. The casualties might have been even higher but for the work of a tactical flight officer in a state police helicopter late Thursday night. While performing overwatch support in Lawrence around 11 p.m., the officer reported that his FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) camera had detected “an anomaly under the pavement” at Broadway and Andover streets, less than a mile from the original over-pressurization site. On the FLIR’s thermal imaging, a ghostly white blob appeared to be exerting pressure upward. Lawrence firefighters rushed to the scene and recognized another major gas leak. The State Police announced that the flight officer’s report had “likely prevented another catastrophic event.”
The narrow stairwell is so hot and smoky that two firefighters clearing the building become tangled and fall back down the stairs.
Over the next several weeks, Columbia Gas mobilizes 3,000 workers and commits to replacing all of the remaining cast-iron pipeline in the three towns, forty-five miles, by November 19. The company is proposing to replace, in roughly two months, the same amount of pipeline they typically replace in one full year.
In late September, you can barely travel a block in Lawrence without encountering a construction crew in their gray and yellow vests. On Colonial, a block from where the Figueroas had lived, a construction crew mills around a hole in the road. A goateed worker in a hard hat says he “isn’t at liberty to say” what, precisely, they are doing. “You need to talk to a Columbia Gas coordinator,” he says. Columbia Gas has hired 1,300 employees from around the country and is housing them on a cruise ship in Boston Harbor. Is it true that the company might not actually replace the cast-iron pipes? That they might instead (as at least one expert suggested) use them as sleeves for new plastic pipes that are small enough to slip inside? It’s a tried-and-true method of upgrading pipeline, and it would not only be faster, but cheaper.
By October 30, three weeks ahead of schedule, Columbia Gas has replaced all forty-five miles of cast-iron pipeline. But because of severe delays in reconnecting individual service lines, the company still has no way of safely getting gas to 93 percent of their affected customers. It will take until the middle of December to fully restore the system.
In response to questions from Popular Mechanics, Columbia Gas spokesman Dean Lieberman provided this statement: “As a party to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, we are prohibited from discussing the cause of the event or NTSB investigative information related to it until the NTSB has completed its work, and a number of your questions touch on these issues. We are working diligently to get the root cause so something like this won’t happen again. The company’s top priority is enhancing pipeline safety, and that is a continuous, ongoing effort that guides all of our actions. Ever since the tragic event of September 13, we have been taking tangible and forward-looking safety steps, including installing automatic shut-off devices and enhanced monitoring capabilities on all our low-pressure systems.”
In addition, Columbia Gas has updated its website to include information on safety steps being implemented across its low-pressure systems.
As for Feeney Brothers, spokesperson Nancy Sterling says: “The NTSB’s preliminary report on the cause of the tragedy in the Merrimack Valley confirms Feeney Brothers’ prior statement on September 21. On September 13, our crew was performing a low-pressure main tie-in of the new plastic gas main to the existing, low-pressure gas main on Salem Street at South Union Street. All of Feeney Brothers’ work was done with Columbia Gas’ on-site supervision and according to written procedures provided to our crew by Columbia Gas, as confirmed in the report.”
St. Mary’s is a vast, dim space dating to 1871, eighteen years after the City of Lawrence was chartered. Standing before an altar decorated in white, green, gold, and sky blue, the Reverend John Dello Russo addresses an audience of some 300 people. “Last Thursday afternoon,” he says, moving easily between Spanish and English, “all hell broke out across the city. And as the news went out to his family, there was shock. Sorrow.”
Leonel’s coffin rests between the rows of pews, beneath a pall so white it’s almost blue. Against the high, echoing ceiling of the church, the smallest sounds are magnified—the creaking of the battered pews, the rustling of paper, stifled sobs. The architecture of a church not only dazzles with divine majesty, but also loads the senses to the point of spilling over.
“The cries of his mother,” Dello Russo says. “ ‘Why my son?’ The questions from all of us. Such a future ahead of him!”
Many mourners wear T-shirts printed with the words “RIP Leonel” and a picture of him. Someone had given one to Leonel’s mother, who slipped it on over her white blouse: her son, looking intensely serious in a two-tone polo shirt with a Dominican flag in the background. “It’s Leonel’s world,” reads another T-shirt that had been made for the funeral: “We’re just living in it.”
Leonel’s cousin, Leomary Colon, stands at the pulpit. Three years earlier, she says, she had been the only senior at a freshman dance at Greater Lawrence Technical School. She wasn’t having a good time; she’d felt awkward. So she asked Leonel to dance with her, and of course he said yes. “He took care of everyone,” she says. Every time he saw her, he’d say, “Be safe!”
But a remark he made to her that night stayed in her mind. It had seemed too mature, coming from her little cousin. Almost ominous. But it also consoles her today, because it means Leonel had consciously been trying, until the very end, to do as much as he could with the time he had. “You got to live it,” Leonel told her at the dance, “until it’s gone.”
Go past the Big ‘N’ Beefy, whose sign advertises “Egg Sandwich 200,” no decimal. Past Broadway Liquors, past auto-body shops and beauty-supply stores, like Garcia’s, whose doorway is flanked by two long windows filled with bewigged mannequin heads.
Just before you reach the old Arlington Mills building, a brick colossus now housing an occupational-training school, turn left onto a gravel road that takes you to the foot of a broad green rise. It’s the largest expanse of open space in Lawrence, the site of both the city’s reservoir and three sprawling cemeteries dating to the nineteenth century. It feels like countryside up here. Two lanes cutting through parkland, the city suddenly gone, its former citizens all around you in their terraces of graves. An anthology of immigration: Irish and German, French Canadian and Syrian, Puerto Rican and Dominican.
A small outbuilding with digging equipment parked outside. Then, just before the Methuen border, St. Mary’s Cemetery.
It’s been a week since the funeral. The plot, numbered SM-H-237, is still unmarked. It froths with flowers and colored ribbons, a wild profusion that has been neatly tucked into the boundaries of the rectangle—a barely contained scream of anguish. At the foot of the grave there are four votive candles, along with messages, still legible. A white ribbon around a cluster of white flowers reads “Cargo Express Corp.” in gold pen. A bouquet of pink and white chrysanthemums is bound by a yellow ribbon that has carefully been signed “Chappy y Naty” in black Magic Marker.
Nearby there are stands of elm trees, a weeping willow. In the distance, gray and brown headstones climb the rising landscape in ranks to a graphite horizon.
Of the million ways a parent is completely unprepared for the death of a child, this one must be among the most terrible. In the midst of a grief that blots out every other sensation and emotion, you have to pick out a grave site. How are you supposed to do that? What kind of a grave would have appealed to an eighteen-year-old boy who liked BMWs, the Red Sox, and Abercrombie cologne? The cemetery director presents you with a map of available plots, and you walk over, wondering what you’re supposed to feel to know this is the right one. Would he have liked the view? What will it be like to visit this place every week for the rest of your life?
In a burned-out house, there is no light, even in midafternoon. No humming refrigerator or clicking furnace. No odor but soot and mold. You need a flashlight to see your way. The temperature is freezing, same as outdoors. Ashes coat everything.
It’s been four months, but it could easily be a decade, so drastically have fire and water aged the Gibbs family’s home of eighteen years. No one was here that day. Lysa was styling a magazine photo shoot. Bill, her husband, was in his office at Channel 4 in Boston, where he works as a building supervisor. Hannah, their eighteen-year-old daughter, was practicing with the volleyball team at Central Catholic High School, and their son Harry, twenty, was sitting in class at the University of Maine. In the living room, plaster surfaces are spotted with green and black mold, as if the house has measles. Flakes of peeling paint the size of a hand curl off the ceiling and litter the floor like dead leaves. A couch is overturned, its base a makeshift table for a half-hearted cataloging of unburned items: a baseball cap, a kitchen drawer. Against the far wall, a jumble of furniture is overseen by two wall clocks stopped at different times. The room feels vandalized.
Lysa’s boots crunch on grit and crumbs of plaster. Her coffee mug from that morning was still on the counter. The laundry was still in the washer. A stick of butter remained in its dish beside the sink, and she has watched in fascination as it collapsed under a shroud of mold: a slow-motion ruin. Mold is the one thing in this house that’s alive.
Of the three cities, North Andover has the smallest fire department: just two stations, with two engines, a ladder truck, and two ambulances. Thirteen men working at a time, covering about twenty-five square miles, handling an average of a dozen alarms a day. At 4:13 p.m. on September 13, twenty-one calls came in within the first ten minutes. Between 4:15 and midnight, the department, led by Deputy Chief Graham Rowe, responded to 114.
A neighbor called in the alarm for 11 Herrick Road at 4:26 p.m. National Fire Protection Association standards call for the first apparatus to reach the scene of an alarm within four to six minutes, 90 percent of the time. September 13 was a day for the other 10 percent. It took seventeen minutes, at rush hour, to get the first engine to 11 Herrick Road—a ladder truck from North Andover. A ladder truck has no pump, but the crew refused to stand by and watch the house burn. They plunged into it and fought it until they’d emptied their extinguishers. They had to retreat; thirty-five minutes later, a mutual-aid pump arrived from Boxford, nine miles away. Some time later, another mutual-aid truck, from North Reading, arrived. By then, the only conceivable strategy to apply was the blunt force of four separate hoses: Water gushed ankle deep out of the front door and all the way down the hill to Mass Ave. The firefighters finally put the fire out by 9:15 p.m.
In this century-old, balloon-frame house, as in many others, flames that began in the basement shot straight to the roof. (You can see it from the outside, plywood boards affixed to the shingles like bandages.) As the fire consumed the attic, family heirlooms in storage came crashing down into Harry’s bedroom: teething rings and baby toys; schoolwork and toddler clothes. The fire melted all of it into a lump. Somewhere inside the lump, Lysa says, is her wedding dress.
Seven weeks afterward, on Halloween, the Gibbses came back here and tried to give out candy, but no kids would come to the door. (“They thought the house was haunted,” Lysa says.) Bill still comes by—he likes to sit out on the concrete deck, where there’s a white picnic table and benches, and planters Lysa still fills with pansies. Harry, driving home from college in Maine, takes the wrong exit sometimes, because he forgets he doesn’t live here anymore.
“I don’t even look at it as our house,” Hannah says softly. “I know what it was like at its best. It’s like if you ever had a grandparent and they got sick, and looked so different you don’t even recognize them.”
But when she gets out of the car this afternoon with her mother and brother, Hannah is first up the front walk. She pulls open the screen door; a stack of accumulated mail spills out. “I wanted to get into college at this address,” she says.
One big envelope makes her face light up: It is from the small Catholic school that’s one of her top choices, and it is as thick as she was hoping it would be.
Omayra Figueroa sits at her dining-room table in a cavernous living room that seems to emphasize the fact that there’s nothing to fill it. In the explosion, Omayra and her kids lost everything she owned, the surroundings that made up her life in that house. Their clothing, their beds, their furniture, her plants. She lost her only photographs of Joshua, her drowned son.
This new apartment, in a brick building near the Merrimack River, she calls “jail.” There are no plants—she doesn’t feel at home enough to cultivate them. Besides, the rooms get almost no natural light. The family had to move to a first-floor apartment, because of Shakira’s wheelchair.
She rolls her chair out of her bedroom, down the long hallway to the far end of the table. She recently had her seventh surgery after developing an infection near her knee as a result of the sixth. The last time she could stand up, she was turning her face to the mirror in her bedroom, getting ready to put on some makeup before going to see the mariachi band and have some dinner.
She’d been working as a server at Bertucci’s and planned to return to school in the spring. “I can’t now, of course,” she says, with no self-pity. She spends a lot of time in hospitals, and she’s learning a lot. She asks questions of the doctors and nurses all the time. She’s curious. She might switch her major from criminology to nursing, or even premed. Someday, she wants to help people.
That’s the hardest thing for Omayra, promising her kids that they’ll all be okay. There have been long nights with Shakira, who sometimes can’t sleep because of the pain. Christian is haunted by his decision to switch places with Leonel in the car that afternoon. The one who was supposed to be there was me, he tells Omayra. If I hadn’t moved, Leonel would be alive. It was Christian who had swum out to Joshua in the water that day in 2010, and had been unable to save him; he had let go only for a second, and then his brother was gone. Omayra’s low, hoarse voice breaks. What can a mother say to a child who’s suffering terrible guilt simply for being alive? Tears fall onto her cheeks. She doesn’t bother wiping them away.
Omayra talks quickly, as if trying to build up momentum that will carry her safely to the end of her story. She says she understands now that when planes explode, the passengers don’t feel anything. Things happen so fast. A couple of nights earlier, she’d been in the shower, and she’d thought, If this building blows up, we’re all going to die, because we’re all on the first floor, and it’s so tall.
The places your mind takes you. Eventually, she runs out of words to describe what she feels, and all that’s left then, she says, is the memory of who her family used to be, and the reality of who they are now.
No one told her the city was going to demolish her house. Until the day she saw it, smashed to the ground as if a giant fist had struck it from the sky, she had believed that maybe they could go back to the way they were. That she could put back together all the things that were broken.
As a baby, Leonel didn’t like to be touched. He always wanted to do things himself. What made him happy was other people. “Mayor,” his mother, Rosaly, called him, because whenever they went walking together, he would stop to talk with everyone they met—little kids, old ladies, teenagers—people she didn’t even know! The elderly people in their North Lawrence neighborhood called him caballero.
Gentleman. Rosaly Rondon has deep, soulful eyes and wears a silk scarf around her neck. She is smiling, remembering her son.
He was a bit of a clotheshorse, and so vain. Worse than any woman! He’d shop only at Macy’s. He used to wake up at 5 a.m. because he needed so much time to get ready for school. To leave the house for a simple errand, he would insist on changing his clothes, fixing his hair. He would go through a full bottle of Abercrombie cologne every month. The whole apartment smelled of it. His entire school, probably! You can ask them.
Sometimes he would come downstairs to show her the outfit he’d chosen for the day: “Do I look handsome?”
She would say, “You’re beautiful.” She would say, “You’re a puppy.” That made him very happy. He was the spirit of the house, the soul of the house.
He would cook with her at 1 a.m. He thought that food tasted better at night, and his sister, Lucianny, did too—salami and egg and plantains. He would go all around the house when he was making smoothies: “You want some? You want some? Because I’m not making any more!”
He fell in and out of love all the time. Yes, girls liked him back—a little bit too much! That used to be the main issue—that girls were in back of him.
He always had music playing, she says. He would make mixtapes for everybody, from his mother to Lucianny’s two-year-old daughter, Rihanny.
Lucianny is here in the lawyer’s office, too, and for a long moment, the only sound in the room is her weeping.
“Leonel taught Rihanny how to dance,” Rosaly whispers. When Rihanny was a baby, he would take care of her late at night so Lucianny could sleep. Rihanny would doze on his chest. He told everyone that she was his own girl. His own daughter.
Leonel was jumping up and down after he passed his driver’s test. That was on the twelfth, and he went to pick up the actual driver’s license on the thirteenth. Had picked out a used BMW that his mother was going to buy for him; with his learner’s permit, he had been chauffeuring her all over town. Cars, girls, and music: He was a teenage boy.
Leonel phoned her that afternoon from the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Lawrence: He needed proof of residence. Could she bring it? It was a ten-minute drive from their apartment to the registry. Leonel’s brother, Leonardy, rode with her, and they met Leonel on the sidewalk outside at about 3:45 p.m. He didn’t want them to wait for him. He was going back to the Figueroas’ house, around the corner, to celebrate. Just for a few minutes, okay? He would call them soon to be picked up.
Leonardy and Mrs. Rondon drove to a pet store in Andover to buy some tropical fish for his tank. On the way back, she noticed a lot of ambulances and helicopters, but she didn’t pay them much attention. She got home to find her husband and Lucianny watching the news. Her husband said not to worry, the danger was far away.
The phone rang while she was cleaning her kitchen. It was her nephew’s wife, saying Leonel was at the hospital.
There was confusion. You can’t imagine. Someone needed to stay behind with Leonardy, Rihanny, and their little cousins who were visiting. They decided Mr. Rondon would. Mrs. Rondon gave her daughter her keys. Lawrence General Hospital was less than a mile away, but she was shaking too much to drive.
Leonel lay in the hospital bed, in a horrible tangle of tubes and wires, like a photograph somebody had scratched with a pen. Was he conscious? She doesn’t know.
He was medflighted to Boston, so they followed him there, a thirty-five-minute drive. Sometime after they arrived, Leonel died.
That’s the beginning and the end of it, for her. There will be depositions and a lawsuit and she’ll go through all of the details, but they’re all beside the point, aren’t they?
Lucianny always tells her mom, Out of so many explosions, he was the only one who passed away. When she says this today, in the lawyer’s office, there is wonder in her voice. The family is devoutly Catholic, and God’s plan for them feels like a mystery. But she thanks God that other people didn’t suffer, because this is horrible. Her voice cracks roughly on the word. The family struggles every day. But they pray and they tell God thank you that nothing happened to children or the elderly or other people.
His mom hasn’t touched anything in his bedroom, except the Abercrombie bottle on his dresser. She used to love hugging him and breathing in his smell. But the scent of his cologne is beginning to fade from the room, so sometimes she sprays a little into the air.
Little Rihanny kisses the photograph of Leonel beside her bed every morning. She’s always asking about him. Let’s go see Uncle Leonel. She knows he’s at the cemetery, and that he wants to see her, too.
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