Fire News Contributor Kevin White Covers the Story… and Then Finds Out He is Part of the Story

Thursday afternoon, September 13, 2018, was seemingly shaping up to be a normal, run-of-the-mill afternoon. People out walking, traffic starting to get heavier for the start of the afternoon commute. It was 1619 hours when I looked out my window, and saw Andover (MA) fire crews pass by my house, as they do several times a day. I didn’t think much of it. They were heading to Grassfields Restaurant on North Main Street for a reported kitchen fire. It was about that moment I started receiving multiple messages asking if I was listening to Lawrence Fire. “They’re receiving multiple calls for basement fires. Do you know anything?” It didn’t take long to realize this was a very serious incident, but no one would be able to predict its magnitude.

As I headed for Lawrence, with the buff radio channels blasting, I started hearing reports of multiple fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. I didn’t know where to go until I heard Lawrence Fire radio say they had reports of a house explosion with entrapment on Chickering Street. I was five minutes away. As I pulled up, the street was hazy with a smell of natural gas. Walking in you could see a once 1-1/2 story home had been leveled from a major explosion. There was glass and shards of wood out in the street and a large portion of the chimney had fallen onto the driver’s side of an SUV in the driveway. As firefighters, police and EMS worked feverishly on top of the car, I realized there was a young man trapped in it. The chimney wouldn’t budge, not even with firefighters using the jaws of life. Additional EMS began arriving to tend to other parties injured in the blast as well as on the SUV extrication. After 10 or 15 minutes, crews were able to free the victim, albeit with CPR in progress, and he was transported to the Lawrence General Hospital. I was told EMS crews were able to regain a pulse, but found out later that the man didn’t make it, dying at a Boston hospital.

As I left, my cell phone rang with a family member alerting me to an evacuation order for Andover and that gas had to be shut off at the meter. I had to leave the city in the midst of a catastrophic incident unfolding in order to protect my own home.

As I arrived home and shut the gas off, I looked north towards Lawrence and could see multiple columns of smoke. Andover, North Andover and Lawrence had fires going, people were visibly shaking outside their homes and traffic was at a near standstill as people evacuated.

I left my house and headed back north to Lawrence, but honestly didn’t know where to go.

I made it back into South Lawrence and headed toward a reported house fire on Jefferson Street. When I arrived, fire was visible from the area of the front door of a 1-1/2 story single family home. There were police officers at either end of the street but fire personnel hadn’t arrived. They were out at other incidents and mutual aid was still making its way into the city. One officer said to me, “That’s one of my officer’s home!” The fire started to consume the home with thicker, heavier smoke pushing from the attic. The first companies to arrive were the Lowell and Haverhill towers but an engine was still a few minutes away. Lowell Engine 3 arrived shortly after, along with a Salem (NH) tower. Firefighters ran multiple lines with a concentration on exposures as the main fire building was near fully involved, but were able to knock the heaviest fire down within 30 minutes. As it turned out, the home did belong to a Lawrence police officer, who was on duty at the time. He was made aware of the fire by family and, knowing they were safely out of the house, went right back to work.

As I left Jefferson Street, I had no idea what was still active or being reported. As I drove toward Broadway I saw a column of smoke and followed it to what was an already an active firefight on Brookfield Street. Fire had traveled through the walls of a two-family, 2-1/2 story dwelling. Companies from Lawrence, West Newbury, Dracut, Methuen and Boston (among others) worked side-by-side to extinguish the fire as the sound of sirens filled the air from mutual aid units responding to other calls for help. It was mostly knocked down at this point with companies transitioning from a defensive attack to an offensive interior attack. The guys were tired but began the tedious job of opening up walls and ceilings to chase hot spots.

Now night, I left the scene and met up with a friend and fellow fire photographer and we waited for any additional incidents.

Not only had the gas been shut off in the area, but the power had to be cut to all of South Lawrence and good portions of both Andover and North Andover. Businesses were closed, houses were in the dark and the only light was from portable lighting plants brought into major intersections. The sound of Massachusetts State Police helicopters filled the air and the sight of state and local police from throughout the region patrolling the streets was a very eerie feeling. It was like buffing in Detroit!

I eventually returned home just before midnight and had the chance to digest what happened in these communities. It was chaos, but it was becoming organized chaos. Why? Because each community has professional public safety personnel who went to work nearly seamlessly. I’m certain it was tense at times not knowing what was next. Dispatchers were receiving calls in the hundreds, and were tasked with prioritizing the incidents. Fire crews were being waved down by homeowners reporting their house on fire. All three communities required resources at the same time, testing the mutual aid system. But through it all, those dispatchers got help to every call. The local fire crews and their mutual aid partners made it to each of those call and the chief and officers in each community had a handle on what was going on, keeping a sense of calm and organization throughout the incident.

Firefighters, police officers, EMS, support vehicles from the state, rehab units and others from over 70 cities from throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire staged and were ready to go help wherever they needed inside the three affected communities. Task forces of personnel stayed at the ready throughout the weekend to help local authorities deal with residual effects of the incident as the region begins what will be a large and time-consuming effort to restore utilities to residents. As this is written, November 19 was set as the target date to replace nearly 50 miles of damaged gas piping. With the colder months approaching, it’s my hope that the target date becomes a reality and everyone can soon return to “normal life”.

I’m not only proud of what I saw from our area first responders but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the many area fire photographers who were right there documenting this incident as it unfolded. We stood side by side with the firefighters and in some cases put the cameras down and dug in to help when manpower was stretched thin. I’m certain that most of the more major incidents were covered by somebody who had a camera. It’s something we all take seriously and it’s a passion of ours to get the stories of our local hero’s out there for the public to see. This will be an experience I believe we will all remember for the rest of our lives. I know I will.

– Fire News photos by Kevin White, Scott LaPrade, and Rick Nohl