“The first thing that came to my mind is that this was a terrorist attack.”
This interview with Andover Fire Department Lt. Bob Dalton (excerpted and edited below for clarity) is part of a Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism series retracing the Merrimack Valley gas explosions five years after the tragedy shook Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover, Massachusetts. You can read and explore the complete coverage here.
I’ve been on the Andover Fire Department 23 years. I am the rank of lieutenant. I work out of Ballardvale Fire Station, and I work on a firetruck with three others. It was during my shift that [the explosion] happened. I was one of the first responders, and it was one of the most trying weeks I have ever worked—I think I worked almost 100 hours that week.
I was on when the initial call came in and the whole thing started. It initially came in as a gas fire in North Andover. On the way over there, I’m listening to the radio, and the radio exploded. They were saying there’s fires here, fires there, and they said, Forget about the fire in North Andover and divert back to Andover [for a structure fire]. I’m like, Jeez, so I turn around. I knew something was going on because of the volume of calls on the radio—I’d never experienced that before.
I pull up to the scene of the structure fire and there’s people everywhere. Word had started to get around; neighbors were starting to come out and say, Oh is your house leaking gas? Mine is too. This was right on the Lawrence line; it was us and Lawrence that were primarily affected. I pull up on the scene and I’m like, What is going on? The first thing that came to my mind is that this was a terrorist attack.
When we pulled up to that house, the guy said that all of a sudden he heard a noise and he went down to the basement and there were flames shooting 20 feet out of the side of his furnace. He actually managed to get the fire out, but it was still dumping gas into the house, so I had to go shut the gas off to the house. Then we proceeded to get another call, and another call, after call for like three to four hours. We did not stop.
I had trouble getting to the calls because traffic was so bad. Everyone was leaving their houses; they were nervous, and they were blocking up all the streets. So, I’m driving up on people’s lawns, I’m driving on the sidewalk to get around them, and literally just going from fire to fire to fire to fire.
We had to do a lot of unconventional stuff. Normally, in a fire, you would spend some time with a thermal imager making sure you get everything out, but we had to just do a quick visual. I had to decide that, because of the huge volumes of calls, we were going to have to just try and hit as many as we could and try to put down the majority of the flames before going to the next one. So we’d put it out until we thought it was out and we’d tell the homeowner, Keep an eye on it and let us know if you need us to come back, and we’d go off to the next one. We were way understaffed because it takes a while to get mutual aid available.
For the first three hours it was insane; I had never—and I hope to never experience again—the amount of calls at a time. Then, after about three hours, we got a lot of help all of a sudden. Communities from the Boston area and all over the state started showing up, and they were all staged over at Andover High School. After our last call, when they told us we could go take a break, we went down to the high school and there were dozens and dozens of firetrucks sitting there waiting to be deployed for additional calls. By that point, it had slowed way down; we were still getting some calls, but the fires had pretty much gone out. We were going door to door checking for gas levels because now we’re afraid of things exploding—houses next to houses that were leaking gas.
Luckily, my house was out of the emergency area. I did call home at one point just to say, Make sure you don’t smell any gas in the basement. If you don’t you should be fine. Around that time we still didn’t know exactly what was going on. It took us a while, as first responders, to find out.
Thank goodness this happened during the day, because if this had happened during the night there would have been tons of fatalities. If this had happened when people were sleeping it would have been awfully tragic. It was tragic that one person died, but that could have been hundreds.
Later we had all this stuff going on related to the gas emergency. Most houses now, you can shut off the gas from the exterior of the building, so we were running around shutting off the gas in certain neighborhoods. Throughout the week, we had people panicking because they were smelling stuff. We had a call where someone thought they smelled something and it turned out to be a dead animal in the bush. It was a crazy week.
When they put the gas back on, that’s a whole other issue—somebody had to be home and so you had to coordinate turning the gas on for them. That was a big undertaking. We had people voluntarily turning off their gas, which creates an issue because then these people would put the gas back on without going through the three channels and then they would fill their house with gas.
I actually ended the week with a fire in an apartment building in town. I found a guy with a thermal injury and dragged him out. That’s how I ended my shift; I just said, I’m going home now.