LAWRENCE, Massachusetts—David Peguero, 21, returned to his home here at 21 Brookfield Street at a quarter to midnight with a clear plastic garbage bag with which to collect his things. His mother, Angela Pena, 39, stood outside and watched but Peguero came out empty-handed.
The fire took everything. His computer, photos, videogames, and school books were all gone. But his family—his mother, along with his father, Angel Pena, 39, his 13-year-old sister, Tarianny, and his poodle, Lindo—made it out safe.
Peguero’s home was incinerated by one of more than 40 gas explosions Thursday afternoon in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover, creating what some city officials called an “Armageddon-like” scenario.
Eighteen-year-old Leonel Rondon died after an explosion knocked a chimney onto his car, according to the Essex County District Attorney’s Office. Twelve others were injured, and thousands in areas served by Columbia Gas were forced to evacuate while power in the region was cut as a safety precaution.
According to the Boston Globe, investigators are looking at the possibility that a Columbia Gas main had been over-pressurized. The company had posted on its website that it would be upgrading gas lines in the state Thursday.
A gas safety expert told The Daily Beast that communities are often served by several gas systems with dramatically different pressures—which may range from less than one pound per square inch, to more than 100 pounds per square inch.
When “low” pressure systems that are common in older communities don’t properly connect to “intermediate” or “high” pressure systems, said Bob Ackley, of Gas Safety USA, it can result in dangerously uncontrolled gas flow.
Ackley said this can happen when utilities try connecting gas mains with different pressure levels—and when pressure-regulating devices aren’t installed or aren’t working.
“The gas just [can] blow right past the pilots and turn them into blow torches,” Ackley said. “So you have a very, very dangerous situation, and it's still dangerous now.”
Peguero, who works at a UPS across town, didn’t realize his house was burning until his friend sent him a photo of the media coverage. “Someone take a picture of the news, right, and send it to me, and I was like, that looks like my house. So I called my mom and said, ‘Is there a problem?’ She said, yeah, ‘The house is on fire.’”
Pena, who is Dominican, explained through her son that she and her family evacuated the house when the smoke detector went off. She didn’t see fire, just smoke. But because the fire department was busy putting out flames elsewhere, it took an hour and 10 minutes for them to come. By that time, everything was gone.
Peguero doesn’t blame the department for taking so long to come. Driving home from work, “I see the fire everywhere, so I knew they were working,” he said.
He and his family have plans to stay with an uncle. Meanwhile, others are gathered at shelters set up by the American Red Cross. At one such shelter at Parthum Elementary, schoolchildren played basketball early in the evening while families quietly trickled in with their belongings in plastic bags, pets on leashes, and sleeping children on shoulders.
Bonnie Norton of the American Red Cross said she was called to set up the shelter at 4:40 p.m. that afternoon. “It’s kind of unreal” she said, but noted that the aid group had set up another shelter in Lawrence due to another gas explosion in recent weeks.
Steven Gill, a registered nurse, was also forced to evacuate. But after relocating his mother, uncle, and aunt, he came to Parthum to volunteer, along with a handful of city officials. “I’m actually really proud of our city,” he said.
Lawrence was most recently in the national spotlight in March, when President Donald Trump suggested executing drug dealers and pointed to Lawrence as a haven for cartels.
The city was built as a mill town in the 1840s and was designed specifically to be separate from its wealthier suburbs. It was home of the historic “Bread and Roses” 1912 labor strike. Today, unlike its New England neighbors, Lawrence boasts a large Dominican population and is majority Hispanic. While Lawrence is noted for its dramatic mayoral races, in wake of the opioid epidemic the place has come to serve as a regional scapegoat.
In the dark of South Lawrence, where all power was cut as a precautionary measure, Xiomara Acosta, 43, was gathered on her driveway with her family, deciding whether or not to leave. Her entire block was seemingly vacant and she was drinking a glass of wine with friends while waiting for her mother to return from work. She said she’d heard stories, but didn’t know anyone who had been hurt.
“I don’t want to leave my house,” she says, explaining that she is afraid of robberies.
Her roommate, Fernando Ramerez, 40, suggested holding out a little longer. “Waiting to see how bad it’s going to be, the situation,” he said. A child wrapped in blankets slept on a plastic chair beside him.
The roads were blocked with police to ensure that no one could come into South Lawrence. But it’s not just Lawrence police; cruisers marked Somerville, Dracut, Lowell, Watertown, Newton, the Middlesex Sheriff’s Department, whizz along the empty roads, along with a fleet of six officers on motorcycles from Andover. A vehicle marked Columbia Gas Company plodded slowly in the direction of the explosions.
At the intersection of Andover and Beacon Street, Lawrence Officer Rocky Vasquez stood under the light of a generator.
He explained that this part of town was usually busy, but last night it was just cops. “Everyone is out,” says Vasquez. The extra police presence, he said, was there “because people taking advantage because there’s no light.” He said he had already heard of two robberies in South Lawrence that evening.
Helicopters flew overhead.
A woman pulled over, she said she left her house to get her phone. “I didn’t know I couldn’t get back through,” she says. “I’ve been going around in circles.”
John Santiago, 56, parked his car at the blockade and walked down Andover Street in the pitch black. He already evacuated once, but he needed to get his kidney medication.
Earlier that day, Santiago and his son heard a helicopter, saw smoke billowing out of a neighbor’s window, turned on the news, and decided to evacuated to his daughter’s home in Ipswich right away. Though Santiago didn’t know anyone who was hurt, Rondon died around the corner from his home. “I told my wife, ‘Honey, let’s go, it’s not safe to be around here.’”
But now, coming home in the middle of the night, to total darkness, and a massive police force, felt just as surreal: “It’s like a coup just happened here.”