YORK, Maine — It has been two months since a gas explosion ripped through neighborhoods in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Massachusetts, damaging 131 homes and businesses and, in the end, leaving many thousands of people without a place to stay. Today, most are unable to return to their homes. In fact, just last week Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said about 2,200 families, about 7,500 people, are living today in temporary housing.
Sarah and Peter Humphrey of York know better than most the legacy of the Sept. 13 explosion, and the devastation it has caused for many families. Peter, an assistant chief with the York Village Fire Department, is a firefighter with the Lawrence Fire Department.
When Sarah and their two children came to Lawrence over Columbus Day weekend, what she saw amazed and troubled her. And it has inspired her to reach out to the York community to help those who remain unable to return home — and with winter coming on.
Most recently, Sarah has launched a “fill a truck” event at Coastal Ridge Elementary School on Friday, Nov. 16.
“We were at South Common in Lawrence, and there were more than 100 trailers lined up there, with more coming just while we were there,” said Sarah of that Columbus Day visit. In all, she said, about 500 trailers were brought in at the expense of Columbia Gas Company.
“A lot of people have also been put up in hotels, and some of them are 20 minutes away. That’s not great. Many people were in a hard position to begin with and they have to spend money on gas to take their kids back and forth to school.”
Meanwhile, here were Sarah and children Jake, a student at Coastal Ridge Elementary School, and Kailyn, 4, living far away from that scene. There’s no doubt the family has had to make do without a husband or father — Peter is working 150 hours a week since the explosion — “but we are safe.”
That weighed on Peter’s mind, as he saw families struggling in their temporary housing. “I wanted Jake to understand York’s a great community, but things are different in other places. He’s well taken care of and he goes to a good school. But I wanted him to see the other aspect, a very poor community trying to make a life under a difficult situation. He saw that when he came to visit, and he flew with it.”
Within a week, Jake and Sarah had spearheaded a drive for spare change, toiletries and nonperishable food at CRES. They turned the money into grocery store gift cards, and brought items to the Lawrence Community Aid and Transition Center, which Sarah learned about from one of Peter’s colleagues. “They have a lot of fires in Lawrence, and this is where fire victims go. This gas explosion wiped them out of everything — blankets, food, clothing, everything. We realized they needed so much more.”
For the past month, mostly by “word of mouth,” Sarah has been holding an ongoing clothing drive. As a mother and massage therapist, she sent out the word to groups of people, like Kailyn’s preschool or Jake’s youth football team or the village firefighters. Over time, she has sent pickup trucks full of clothes to the center.
“When I would talk to people, they would say, wow, I didn’t realize this was still going on,” she said.
But the need continues, she said, particularly for warm clothing and blankets. So this Friday afternoon, Nov. 16, she and the fire department are teaming up to hold an event called “Fill a Fire Truck. Help Keep Lawrence Warm!” She is asking everyone in York to check closets for all the coats, scarves, gloves, snow pants, boots and any other winter gear no longer being used and bring them to Coastal Ridge.
She said the center in Lawrence also has a real need for blankets, quilts, comforters or any warm bed covering in serviceable condition. The truck will be in front of CRES from 3 to 6:30 p.m. There will also be drop-off boxes at the other three schools in town, and boxes remain in all four schools throughout next week for anyone who might have forgotten and would like to contribute.
“The jackets that just don’t fit the kids anymore might be a blessing for someone. The people in Lawrence need help and we have the ability to help them,” she said. “If anything happened to us like that, I would hope someone would help us, too.”