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.
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: