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Masters of Disaster

Last Fall, Columbia Gas Explosions Rocked the Merrimack Valley and UML Alumni Led the Recovery

Joe Albanese talks to news outlets in a warehouse Photo by Eagle Tribune

As head of a quickly assembled team of close to 5,000 workers, Joe Albanese ’84 (above, right) was responsible for every aspect of the recovery, from restoring gas to the homes to feeding and sheltering the displaced.

09/06/2019
By Geoffrey Douglas

North Andover firefighter Matt Davis ’00 was off-duty just after 4 p.m. last Sept. 13 when the app on his phone flashed its first message: “All members, please respond.”

Across three towns in the Merrimack Valley, fires were breaking out, homes were burning, explosions were rocking neighborhoods. Confusion, then panic, took hold among residents arriving home from rush hour commutes to find their streets blocked off by first responders. Davis was among the dozens of firefighters from as far away as Boston and Manchester, N.H., who worked nonstop until the next morning. “We were going house to house, checking on people,” he says.

They put out more than 80 fires in Andover, Lawrence and North Andover. The cause? A spontaneous buildup of pressure in the gas lines owned by Massachusetts-based Columbia Gas, causing boilers, and some entire houses, to explode. In all, one person was killed and another 20 were injured. More than 8,600 homes were evacuated.

The fires were mostly out by nightfall, but the crisis was nowhere near over. Indeed, it was just getting started. Power was cut to all three communities. Hundreds of buildings were damaged. Thousands of customers were without natural gas for months. The gas lines had to be replaced and roads and streets repaired.

From the first emergency calls to the restoration of natural gas service, UMass Lowell alumni were involved in the recovery efforts from the Columbia Gas explosions. Engineers, executives, first responders and human service workers were among those who stepped in and stepped up, helping the communities to rebuild and recover.

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE EXPLOSIONS, Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency; neighboring towns loaned equipment; schools and senior centers were opened to take in evacuees.

On the UML campus, close to 100 affected students were offered help: housing in residence halls, food, clothing and school supplies, counseling services, even emergency funds for transportation.

Several were moved into temporary housing.

Another three students, says Associate Dean of Student Affairs Anne Ciaraldi, “had been displaced altogether, first to hotels and then to trailers, before finally being able to move back home months later.”

Just weeks before the disaster, the university’s EMS team had formalized a partnership with the Dracut Fire Department to coordinate the response to incidents in the area. When the Dracut FD was deployed to Lawrence on the evening of the explosions, it was joined by five members of UMass Lowell’s EMS: students Isabelle Seal, David Feinberg, Shelagh Fitzgerald and Brittany O’Neil and alumnus Patrick Kiley ’18. The students helped with medical inventory management and triage coordination at the command center, while Kiley served as logistics supervisor.

But for all that was being done, as time went on, it became clear that a longer-range, top-down, centralized effort was needed.

Matt Davis wearing fire gear holding his helmet in front of a fire truck
Firefighters like North Andover’s Matt Davis ’00 put out more than 80 fires immediately following the Merrimack Valley gas explosions.
A WEEK AFTER THE EXPLOSIONS, Columbia Gas brought in alumnus Joe Albanese ’84, a retired captain in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps and former commander of a team of Navy Seabees in the second Gulf War, to help. Albanese was chief recovery officer in charge of rebuilding efforts.

Albanese, a UML graduate in civil engineering and founder and CEO of Waltham-based Commodore Builders, was given full command and control responsibilities over the repair of 48 miles of gas lines, as well as all other recovery-related logistics and services.

The project was expected to take months.

“It was an honor to be named, and I was humbled to be a part of it,” says Albanese. “But it was also an unprecedented challenge.”

There seemed little doubt in anyone’s mind that he was up to it. “I think we have a [Gulf War General] Norman Schwarzkopf figure here,” said Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera. A Columbia Gas spokesman, citing Albanese’s deep experience, called him “a perfect fit for this mammoth task.”

Still, his oversight duties were many. As leader of a quickly assembled team of close to 5,000 workers—plumbers, carpenters, laborers, pipefitters and electricians—he was responsible for every aspect of the project, from restoring gas to the homes (and keeping them heated in the meantime) to feeding and sheltering the displaced. And it all needed to happen by an agreed-upon deadline of Dec. 16, less than three months after the work started.

“We were racing against winter,” Albanese says. “There was an incredible sense of urgency. We had 50 percent more rain than usual for that time of year, and then a record-cold Thanksgiving weekend. The goal was to restore gas service and get people back in their homes before the real cold came. If all this had happened two months earlier, it would have been a whole different operation.”

Though numbers alone rarely tell the full story, in the case of Albanese’s three months on the job in the Merrimack Valley, they are instructive:

And that’s not even mentioning the numbers that go with 5,000 workers repairing or replacing 48 miles of pipe.

“Plus you had things like code challenges and hazardous-material issues that came up all the time,” Albanese says. “It was pretty crazy. Every day was different. You couldn’t plan for anything; you just had to deal with whatever came along. Kind of like building your fire engine on the way to the fire.”

gas-explosion-map-timeline

IN EACH OF THE THREE AFFECTED COMMUNITIES, a handful of key players reported to Albanese. One of these, in Andover, was another UML civil-engineering graduate—Chris Cronin ’87, the town’s public works director. His mandate during those weeks was critical.

“We had two main priorities,” he says. “To get the gas main replaced—it had been compromised, it was junk—and to get our people back in their homes.”

There were 70 miles of roads affected, says Cronin, and over the course of the project, at least 200 construction crews were at work there.

“That’s a lot of backhoes banging into each other, and then all the other vehicles,” he says. “So much traffic, so much going on—it was crazy. I should have kept a diary.”

Almost every day, he says, there were tense meetings. “With Joe [Albanese], with the governor, the DPW people, the plumbers, the building inspectors. We’d meet and talk about the problems—what was working, what wasn’t, what needed to be changed. Everybody there was looking to help, didn’t matter what it was.”

On top of all the logistics, there were the people to worry about.

“We definitely had our share of issues,” Albanese says. “A lot of people were shaken up, but it wasn’t only that. We had undocumented residents afraid of being exposed; there were the so-called ‘threefamily’ dwellings that were really six-family. We had to work around all that kind of stuff.”

“A lot of people were just really scared,” Cronin says. “Not hard to understand. When you don’t have your house, you don’t have anything.”

Then there was the challenge of dealing with the fallout on the area’s children and seniors, its most vulnerable residents. Henry de Lima ’15, who came to UMass Lowell in 2012 straight from a tour in Afghanistan, is a social worker at Family Continuity in Lawrence, by far the largest, poorest and hardest-hit of the three communities affected.

All of de Lima’s clients are children, some as young as 5, and most are Latino. A few of the older ones, he says, had known the teenager, Leonel Rondon, who died sitting in a car in a friend’s driveway, when the house exploded and its chimney fell and crushed him. “Some of them were pretty devastated,” de Lima says. “Kids that age have a hard time comprehending.”

But it’s the younger ones, he says, who have suffered the worst trauma.

“Some of them were in homes that were burned or destroyed, or had neighbors who did. They’re little kids—they want to know, ‘Is my home going to catch fire again? Am I going to die? Is the house really fixed?’”

Whenever possible, de Lima would visit with these children in their homes, often with their parents present, and do what he could to allay their terrors. But it was never easy, he says: “There’s still a lot of fear out there. And a lot of really anxious children.”

Headshot of Joan Hatem-Roy

“We coordinated with our state agencies, worked with the nonprofits, arranged beds in nursing homes, got people fed from Meals on Wheels, found drivers to go around checking homes—just about anything you could think of.”
–Joan Hatem-Roy ’82, CEO, Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley Inc.

ALUMNA AND LAWRENCE NATIVE JOAN HATEM-ROY ’82 WAS AT A DINNER IN NEWBURYPORT when she first saw the news on TV. “It was all just about the first responders,” she remembers. “I wasn’t sure what to make of it right away.”

When Hatem-Roy, the CEO of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, realized what has happening, she went into overdrive. She called her command center in Lawrence, the senior center in Andover and the state agencies that she knew could be of help. “We made home visits, we phoned emergency numbers, we called the nursing homes—the job was to account for everyone,” she says.

Hatem-Roy has been at the Merrimack Valley nonprofit for nearly 30 years, since not long after she earned a master’s degree in social work from UConn, which followed her bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Lowell. With over 300 full- and part-time employees, the agency contracts with more than 70 care providers to offer nursing services, home care, counseling, caregiver support, information and advice on a range of senior-age concerns.

Most of the agency’s contractual relationships, says Hatem-Roy, were tapped in the weeks following the explosions. “We coordinated with our state agencies, worked with the nonprofits, arranged beds in nursing homes, got people fed from Meals on Wheels, found drivers to go around checking homes—just about anything you could think of,” she says.

The best part, she says, was how all the boundaries and work lanes seemed to melt away.

“Everybody was stepping out of their little boxes,” she says. “You had a firefighter on medical leave cooking for people who didn’t have gas, heating formula for mothers, offering showers in his home to people without hot water. There were so many stories like that—finance people writing checks, HR people finding translators, everyone doing whatever it took. For a long time after the explosions, I wasn’t a CEO anymore.

“It was really something to be part of. And we’re a closer, tighter community today.”

ON DEC. 5, COLUMBIA GAS ANNOUNCED THAT GAS SERVICE WAS COMPLETELY RESTORED to 8,000 customers. Joe Albanese began the task of ramping down his team. Not long after, the Massachusetts DPU announced that his job was officially done.

Today, residents are back in their homes and back to their lives. The heat’s back on. The gas main has been replaced. But the work is far from over.

On Dec. 7, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities announced that the final phase of the job—ensuring that roads are repaved, sidewalks repaired and graded, home furnaces replaced and heat and hot water restored—would be completed by Columbia Gas, at its expense, by no later than Oct. 31 of this year. There would be a new overseer now: Massachusetts company Nitsch Engineering, the largest woman-owned civil engineering firm in the state.

The company’s CEO and chairwoman: UML alumna Lisa Brothers ’84, a registered professional engineer and member of the Advisory Board for both the College of Engineering and the Center for Women and Work.

The company, Brothers says, will be “monitoring Columbia Gas’ management of the remaining restoration and recovery work,” as well as measuring progress, providing recommendations, ensuring compliance and keeping stakeholders informed.

So it isn’t over yet—but considering the folks on the front lines, including so many with connections to the university, there is cause for optimism.

“You had a lot of really knowledgeable people,” says Cronin. “And some of us were connected already—like Joe and I, with UMass Lowell—or had maybe worked together before. So there was a lot of trust. It didn’t matter who you were; there were zero egos involved.

“It was amazing to be part of it, actually. Without that sort of teamwork, I can only imagine how bad things could have been.”