The Day the Town Blew Up

Writtten by: Nathaniel Penn and appeared in the June 2019 issue of Popular Mechanics.

Last fall, a sudden gas-pipeline accident destroyed dozens of homes near Boston: 141 fires, five explosions, 21 serious injuries, and one death— in a single evening. This is the story of how such a thing happens— and the heroic response that day.

a house with a blown out window

Thursday, September 13, 2018 / 35 Chickering Road, Lawrence, Massachusetts / Around 11 A.M

A knock on the door wakes up Omayra Figueroa. It’s Leonel. On the front stoop. Of course. Leonel is an honorary Figueroa. His mother often jokes to Omayra about moving his bed there.

Shakira, Omayra’s twenty-one-year-old daughter, throws on some clothes and joins him outside in the sun. It’s beautiful out, 70 degrees. The Figueroas—Omayra, her three children: Shakira; Christian, twenty; and Sergio, seventeen—moved to this working-class neighborhood of Cape-style single-family homes in 2013. It sits just around the corner from a strip mall and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but Colonial Heights feels like its own little world, less than a square mile, green and still. Oak trees arc over hushed streets. Over eighty years, Colonial Heights has become increasingly diverse—Latin American and southeast Asian names showing up on mailboxes alongside the Irish and Italian ones.

Thirty-five Chickering Road is the first property that Omayra has ever owned—her castle, she calls it, big and bright, filled with plants she spends time tending to. She got a basketball hoop for her boys, and solar panels on the roof. She loves gathering family and friends for boisterous barbecues in the backyard, with Puerto Rican specialties she cooks herself and lots of music. She has maintained the house’s siding in the preppy, two-tone color scheme found on many suburban homes in Massachusetts, a deep gray trimmed in white. The house makes her feel happy and safe: It has withstood sixty-two years of New England weather—blizzards, ice storms, floods. It can hold the Figueroas, she figures.

At this time of day, the elm tree next to the front walk casts the entire house into shadow. The pink rosebush beside the brick front stoop waits for the sun. Shakira slides out onto the stoop, and there she sits with Leonel and a friend who’s accompanied him today, talking about things she won’t remember later. Read More >>

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