It was only four years ago to the day on Nov. 22 that 400 residents living near an ink and paint manufacturing plant off Water Street had their lives abruptly turned upside down in the early morning hours of that Wednesday – the day before Thanksgiving – and suddenly found themselves homeless.
By contrast, any visitor wandering down Bates or Riverside streets yesterday might have found it hard to believe the neighborhood was nearly blown away a few years ago. All he or she would have seen was a quiet residential neighborhood marked by some orange cones around open grates in the street, construction equipment and contractors seemingly performing routine roadwork.
According to the accounts of residents who were jarred from sleep on Nov. 22, 2006 at 2:46 a.m. when the CAI and Arnel Inc. plant exploded, it was a stunning and terrifying experience.
Mark Lettich, who lives at 12 Riverside St. with his wife Janet, described the initial shock of the blast as "stunning." "We didn't know what was going on," he said.
But the danger of the situation became quickly apparent as a large column of flames burned hotly outside, innumerable car alarms blared and people kept yelling.
"We just knew we had to get out of there," Lettich said.
The blast itself was heard for miles away and felt throughout Danvers and neighboring communities. The incoming barrage of 911 calls moments later actually tied up outside phone lines at the Danvers Police Station so units at the scene were unable to call in backup requests, said Chief Neil Ouellette.
Current Acting Fire Chief Kevin Farrell said he was jolted awake by the blast and rushed to the scene along with the rest of the Fire Department. He was the deputy chief at the time under James Tutko.
"It was a like a war zone," Farrell said – 55-gallon drums of paint chemicals were exploding, live power lines were down all over the place and several homes in immediate proximity to the plant were in danger of collapsing. Large, gaping holes marked other homes nearby and on adjoining streets.
Some businesses were damaged beyond repair as well – the roof was blown off the building housing a bakery and pizza shop at the corner of Bates and Water streets, a gas station on Water Street was badly damaged – while still others nearby were not hit quite so hard – a building at the marina behind the former factory suffered heavy damage, a monument business on Water Street was damaged and windows were blown out at various places.
"It looked like something out of a movie… We were fortunate that it [the plant] just blew up," Farrell said.
A master alarm box installed outside the plant, and which was hardwired to Fire Headquarters, only sent out two short rings before it was blown completely off the building, delaying the arrival of fire and police units until after the explosion.
"We could have lost a quarter of the department if we got there sooner," Farrell said.
"The plant disintegrated. According to officers at the scene, it was raining cinderblocks," Ouellette said.
He said he actually didn't feel the blast from his home, as his house sits in a gully, but his neighbors did. An officer on duty called Ouellette to the scene shortly before 3 a.m.
Ouellette said it was a "surreal" experience standing on Bates Street and looking through one side of a person's home to the rear, fully engulfed in flames.
The blast even got in the way of Black Friday shopping. Police initially closed off the roads from Hutchinson Drive off Endicott Street all the way down Water Street to High Street. Eventually, the cordoned area of Water Street shrank to just between Endicott Street and Pulaski Street in Peabody.
Ouellette said Peabody Chief Robert Champagne would call him daily to ask when traffic could pass through the busy thoroughfare, connecting Salem, Peabody and Danvers.
The good news for public safety officials was that no one was killed or seriously injured despite the destruction.
"It was a miracle no one was killed," said Town Manager Wayne Marquis.
Residents were in their beds and the factory itself was empty along with most of the businesses nearby at that hour – Farrell says the timing was fortunate as well. If the blast happened just a few hours later or say at 2:46 p.m., the shockwave alone would have inflicted serious internal injuries on people walking about nearby, bomb experts told Farrell. As it was, the shockwave, and flying debris, passed over residents as they slept.
"I can close my eyes and still see it," said Marquis, who serves as the emergency management director in public crises. Marquis recalled his own thoughts from those harrowing days immediately following the explosion.
"I thought a jet plane crashed in my backyard," he said.
Stepping up for the victims
Marquis credits all his department heads for superior teamwork in responding to the scene and maintaining safety at the site and meeting the needs of the displaced residents in the days that followed.
"Everybody stepped up," he said, from firefighters and police who also then set up security details for the neighborhood to Building Inspector Richard Maloney and crew identifying structural safety hazards, boarding up broken windows and locking doors to discourage looting.
Police cordoned off the area for 13 days, Ouellette said, only letting residents in accompanied by town employees to help retrieve essential belongings. Council on Aging Director Pamela Parkinson and Planning Director Karen Nelson coordinated housing, food and collecting donations that came in.
People were evacuated from 150 homes along with residents from the New England Homes for the Deaf across the river and were transported over to where a temporary shelter was set up inside Danvers High School through that weekend.
Through the coordinated efforts of town officials and the Danvers Community Council, meals, clothing and other necessities were provided for the displaced residents and donations started to pour in from multiple sources. Many of the residents were housed in temporary lodgings, some for months on end.
"Every town has special people, but the degree that people [here] cared for people was extraordinary," said Marquis.
"I think the community really came out and took care of those residents, provided for them," Ouellette said. "I would say the department made friends for life."
Investigating the blast and new regulations
Investigators eventually determined the explosion was due to human error.
Farrell said the typical manufacturing process at the plant involved mixing batches of chemicals in a heated, jacketed vat. The mix was heated to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit via manual controls. That particular night, the heat was left on and the ventilation system was turned off. Heptane, a volatile chemical compound in the vat mixture, turned to vapor in the continued steam and filled the factory. All it needed then was a spark.
An apparent lack of oversight on smaller businesses storing flammable or hazardous materials, both at the state and local level, prompted the formation of a state team of experts to immediately begin inspecting 41 other facilities across Massachusetts that could pose like hazards. In Danvers, the Fire Department began its own round of inspections, which local businesses readily cooperated with, Farrell said. He added that safety practices at many facilities are very thorough these days.
The town did away with multi-year permits for the storage of over 10,000 gallons of flammable, combustible or hazardous material, requiring an annual renewal and inspection process with the Fire Department. Facilities are also required to conduct annual self-audits and bring in an outside engineer every three years for an inspection.
This past May, voters at Town Meeting also strongly supported a new town bylaw to further clarify when such a permit is required. The bylaw is undergoing state review before it can be enacted.
While Farrell feels comfortable with the heightened awareness and regulations on storage of flammable or hazardous materials – he says his department is doing its best to stay on top of monitoring – he admits you can't regulate for one thing – mistakes.
"You can't regulate the human factor," he said. Requiring fail-safes in facilities could counter that, but that's a decision the state legislature would need to impose.
Ouellette said the incident highlighted the fact that his department has an aging communication system in need of an overhaul and a new dispatch center. In addition to working toward those goals, all his officers are now trained in emergency response strategies and incident command. Ouellette said Danvers was getting ready to begin those tabletop training sessions that November.
The training covers logistical issues, proper equipment and even learning uniform language to quickly and efficiently communicate in a situation involving explosions, exposure to hazardous materials, terrorist attacks or other similar incidents.
Marquis said he has given countless presentations now in various communities on the town's response to the tragedy.
The blast incurred $1.6 million in expenses for the town, $1.4 million of which is covered by a state grant to pay for repairs to sewer, gas and electric lines, streets and sidewalks on Bates and Riverside streets. A main portion of that project, after experiencing numerous delays, is expected to be finished in the coming weeks.
"It will be nice, they [the residents] deserve it," Marquis said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also filed a $2.7 million complaint this summer against CAI and Arnel for the cleanup costs, claiming the companies have been unresponsive.
In the aftermath of the destruction ravaged in the neighborhood, hundreds of residents were displaced for days, weeks – some for months – as they began the process of rebuilding their homes. Five homes abutting the former plant were condemned as unsafe by the town and torn down while several other homes were eventually razed at the discretion of their owners.
Within two or three years most of the homes were rebuilt and the neighborhood looked like its former self.
"People have mended the things that were broken and are well on their way to normalcy in their lives," Ouellette said.
"We're very happy to be back home," said Mark Lettich, speaking from the new house he and his wife have built on the same spot. He said they're moving forward in life the best they can.
Living in an apartment for 8-1/2 months was a strain at times, Lettich said, but the outpouring of support they received helped ease the burden.
"There was a terrific amount of support from the community and the town. It eased the burden a bit," he said.