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Community 'overwhelmed and shell-shocked' after gas explosions, says pastor

A neighbor looks at a home burned in a series of gas explosions in Lawrence, Sept 14. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

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LAWRENCE -- Volunteers at St. Patrick Church's Cor Unum Meal Center were serving dinner when multiple natural gas explosions and fires broke out in homes across Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover on Sept. 13.

Speaking to the Pilot on Sept. 14, Father Paul O'Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Church which is located in the heart of the affected area, described South Lawrence as "a combination of a disaster area and a ghost town."

"Much of the population has been evacuated, but there are still many people here, and at this point we have no information about when people are going to be able to come back or when gas or electricity might be restored," Father O'Brien said.

"The nature of the problem yesterday was everybody had to get out of every building immediately because every building could potentially explode if it had gas. So, people were immediately helping one another to get moving, but it wasn't a situation where you were moving people from one place in the community to another place in the community, it was trying to get everybody out," Father O'Brien said.

He called scene "an experience out of a disaster movie," and said people are "overwhelmed and shell-shocked."

"It's a lot different than just a big fire or an explosion when you realize that every building may explode within minutes. It's an absolutely unique terror. Yesterday afternoon we had explosions and fires and the air was filled with smoke, and information was lacking, so people were gradually realizing everything might blow up, and that was quite terrifying," Father O'Brien recalled.

Built in 2006, Cor Unum Meal Center serves free breakfast 6 a.m.-8 a.m. and dinner 4:30 p.m. -6:30 p.m. every day of the year. On Sept. 14, the morning after the explosions, Cor Unum was open for breakfast. Since the gas and electricity were shut off, volunteers provided bagged meals to their patrons.

"I think it's a great thing that, across the community here, from the governor to a person in a backyard, people know that it's the Catholic Church in South Lawrence to whom they can turn for their basic needs. That's a very beautiful thing in the midst of a really terrible crisis," Father O'Brien said.

As the situation was developing, Cardinal Seán O'Malley posted on Twitter in English and Spanish in the evening of Sept. 13, "Monitoring closely the situation in Lawrence, Andover and N. Andover. We are contacting pastors and principals. Catholic schools closed tomorrow in the areas."

In a subsequent post, he said, "We offer our prayers and support for the safety of first responders and residents in Lawrence, Andover and N Andover who are working to resolve the situation safely."

Lawrence Police reported on Twitter that shelter was available for evacuees at St. Mary of the Assumption and Central Catholic High School.

Central Catholic set up a page on their website to share updates on their shelter status. It reported that Central Catholic offered the Red Cross use of its campus as a shelter, but since other facilities were being used for that purpose it was not needed.

"Central Catholic continues to keep lines of communication open with the American Red Cross if future needs are required," the webpage said.

On Sept. 14, the high school was open to students, faculty, and staff despite classes being cancelled. Displaced families were welcome to use common areas.

"As a Catholic institution in the Marist tradition, we are offering our prayers and opening our hearts to all of those who were impacted by the unexpected events of September 13. God bless the first responders and all who have given of themselves to help others during this time." Central Catholic said in a Sept. 14 statement.

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