Katie Ramos’s shift as a dispatcher at the Andover Police Department started like any other on Sept. 13. The 27-year-old was prepared to assist with the mix of 911 and business calls for police, fire, and EMS services in the town, where she has been working for the last two-and-a-half years.
Typically she and her colleagues expect about 100 calls a day.
But that Thursday, when more than 60 fires and at least three explosions broke out in homes and businesses in Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence, was unlike any day Ramos had worked before.
The 27-year-old, who has been working as a dispatcher since 2012, started her shift just before 9 a.m. and almost the whole day was normal, slow even, she said.
Until a call came in just before 4:30 p.m.
“I remember just kind of watching the clock and waiting for our relief to come in so that we could leave,” Ramos said. “But then we got one call, which turned into a thousand more calls within a matter of five minutes, I’d say.”
The first call that came in to Andover, around 4:20 p.m., was from North Andover. The town north of them was asking if they could borrow a fire engine from the Andover Fire Department because they had a gas leak.
“That was the first sign of anything,” Ramos said.
Andover lended out the engine to the neighboring town.
Almost immediately, the 27-year-old said a call came in for a stove fire at Grassfields restaurant.
A full fire department response was sent.
“Then about maybe a minute-and-a-half later we got a house fire,” Ramos said. “And probably a minute after that we got another house fire. And then the state police called and they told me that Lawrence and North Andover also had multiple fires going on and that it was some sort of gas line issue with explosions and fires in the other two towns as well.”
Thousands of residents in the three Merrimack Valley communities were forced to flee their homes after authorities say over-pressurized gas lines held by Columbia Gas caused dozens of gas fires and explosions, injuring about 25 people and killing an 18-year-old Lawrence man.
“The recovery process is underway,” Gov. Charlie Baker said at a Tuesday press conference. “People have been able to go back to their homes, but there remains a long road ahead.”
Ramos said the quick succession of calls happened “so fast” on Thursday. And when it started with the call from a restaurant reporting a stove fire— a typical cause of conflagration in a kitchen — she and her colleagues didn’t initially suspect that a more widespread issue was the culprit.
“Then the house call — that was kind of weird,” she said. “But I still didn’t really have time to think about it. I was just thinking, ‘I hope we have enough trucks for these two calls.’ And then after the state called, I just looked around and every single phone we had was ringing. And at that point there were more and more reports of fire and gas problems.”
Thankfully, Ramos said, the incident occurred during a shift change, so anyone who was available jumped on answering the calls.
“Just getting a list of who has a fire, who smells gas, who do we even have to send, who’s calling for other towns to come in,” she said.
Police officers pitched in, and people came in from their days off when news of the gas crisis spread.
“We had two people per desk answering the phones,” Ramos recalled. “There are two phones on each desk and there were two people at each desk answering each phone. Plus other phones in other rooms at that point.”
The department got a thousand calls “at least,” according to the dispatcher.
“For the first hour nobody really knew the severity of what was going on,” she said. “So it was just kind of getting addresses and trying to find more trucks to come in and get to the calls. At one point we were sending police officers to fire calls just to see how bad it was — if there were flames showing, if it was put out easily with a fire extinguisher. Anyone that we had available really. But after a while, once we finally realized what was going on, we sent out a reverse 911 to everyone in town just telling them to turn off their gas if they can and to evacuate.”
The volume of calls didn’t start to “calm down” until about 10 p.m., Ramos said.
And the next day, they started back up, this time with questions from residents about when they could return home and asking when the gas would be turned back on.
“It was a really long weekend,” she said.
Ramos said the demand on services during those hours made clear the department is “well-prepared” to respond to a major event with the aid of towns, as far away as Springfield, jumping in to help.
“We were all pretty calm during it all, I mean, as much as we could be,” she said. “We all worked really well as a team just to make sure the bigger issues were taken care of. And I think it went as best as it possibly could.”
The response from the community in the following hours and days was also key, Ramos said. People have come into the department, sometimes three times a day, every day, bringing food and water to the staff in the building.
“Especially Saturday, nothing was really open,” she said. “We had deliveries of food and drinks all day long, all night long. We were pulling 16-, 20-hour shifts here, so they definitely helped us a lot.”