Contributed by Ryan Wheeler
On Thursday September 13 just after 5pm we received text, email, and phone alerts to evacuate all campus buildings. Phillips Academy responded quickly to evacuation orders, due to gas fires and explosions in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. Reports from town officials at the time stated that in Andover a total of 35 fires were reported with 18 fires burning at the same time. Significant damage was being reported from surrounding communities as well, and sirens and emergency vehicle were regular sights on Main Street. Subsequent reports indicate that older gas lines had been over pressurized, resulting in gas accumulation, fires, and explosions. Officials and first responders described the scene as a “war zone” and “Armageddon.”
Quiet study night at the Peabody had just begun when we received the evacuation order and several students were already in the building. They evacuated and joined their peers on the Great Lawn. All students were well cared for by their house counselors, faculty, and administrators and ultimately were able to get back into their dorms around 11:00pm. Classes were cancelled on Friday at Phillips Academy and in the other affected towns.
I remained at the Peabody until just after 7:00pm to ensure that there was no immediate danger to our collections. Rachel Manning arrived and kept an eye on things for another hour. Curator of Collections Marla Taylor was in touch with both of us. By this time utility workers had depressurized the gas lines in our vicinity and all electricity had been shut down to the towns.
Following in the wake of the recent conflagration and near total loss of the Brazilian national museum, we were extremely concerned about possible threats to the Peabody building and collections. The Brazilian fire illustrates just how susceptible cultural collections are to loss. In that case officials estimate that nearly 20 million objects were destroyed, including recordings of now-extinct Native languages, paintings and decorative arts, and other significant archaeological and ethnographic collections.
Happily the Peabody has never had gas service, so we were relatively safe, though gas can travel through the soil and invade basements. Gas lines do exist in the area and provide service to many of the homes and apartments on campus and in the vicinity. There is an access point to one line–a vault–just outside our building and I watched the utility worker depressurize this and shut it off. This site has continued to attract the attention of utility workers over the subsequent days. On Wednesday September 26 workers purged old gas from these lines in anticipation of line replacement.
This was a pretty scary emergency, especially considering the scale and scope. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see the loss of homes in our Merrimack Valley community, as well as learning about the injuries to dozens of people and at least two deaths. Many homes and businesses in the area remain without heat and considerable numbers are out of work.