Crisis Management

     I left my North Andover newspaper office last Thursday afternoon thinking it was just another day. closer to the weekend. After the Merrimack Valley gas explosions, life was anything but ordinary.

     I work an early shift so my day ends at 3:30 pm. I headed down Route 28 towards Planet Fitness in Reading, hoping to return to an exercise routine after too long of an absence. I switched my car radio to the news station at the top of the hour to catch the headlines. I was surprised to hear a breaking news story from the area I just left.

     Explosions, houses on fire, unconfirmed injuries – none of what I was hearing on the radio made sense. It sounded like a war zone. My mind immediately jumped to a terrorist attack scenario especially since the somber anniversary of September 11th just passed. I was only slightly relieved when the source of the explosions was linked to underground gas pressure. Would there be more explosions coming? Did the gas lines in North Andover continue down Route 28 through North Reading and Reading? Would I be outrunning exploding buildings all the way to Stoneham? Suddenly I felt like John Cusack in the movie “2012”.

     At home I watched the television news. I was glued to the screen. The news channels were streaming images of quiet neighborhood in shambles. Houses were blown apart into piles of matchsticks, an overused metaphor but no other words describe the scene more accurately. The source of the explosions was still a mystery. There were questions about the number of casualties. Surprisingly, order prevailed over chaos thanks to recent rescue drills performed by the areas emergency responders.

     I wasn’t getting any answers from the television news, so I logged into social media to fill in the blanks. People on Facebook were asking more questions. Some were letting friends and relatives know they were safe. Twitter is my go-to app in natural disasters because it connects you immediately to people on the street streaming from ground zero. It’s refreshing to find first-hand information not filtered through whoever controls the content of the nightly news.

     After the governor’s press conference at 9 pm, I emailed my boss to ask if our office would be open on Friday. I had my doubts since many roads were closed, electricity and gas were shut off, and evacuations were ordered in three towns where the explosions occurred. I got no response from my manager so I took that as a “yes” we would be working Friday. The worst part of working for a newspaper is being a 24 hour/7 day operation. Newspaper workers fall under the category of essential personnel in times of crisis. After all, the population needs to be informed even if all the answers aren’t immediately known.

     At 7 am Friday morning, I was back in North Andover. I dodged my way through dangerous intersections with non-working traffic lights. I passed many emergency vehicles on the roadside. I listened to the news on my car radio telling people to stay away from the area if at all possible. Against my better judgment, I drove onward. I am an old-school newspaper employee, dedicated and persistent.

     I met a group of displaced co-workers standing outside the employee entrance. We waited with our manager to find out when we could enter the building to begin our work day. It was still questionable whether or not the company could run the gas powered generators needed to get the office up and running.

     The weather cooperated for our impromptu employee gathering. We spent the morning waiting for the go-ahead outside the building in patio area. Employees who live in the affected towns told horror stories about their night of fires, explosions and evacuations. And yet they all showed up for work the next morning. One employee told me it was the random pattern of the explosions scared her the most. Three homes caught fire in a two block radius of her home. By chance or fate it could have been her home that was destroyed.

     After many false starts and stops, we entered the building sometime after noon and tried to put together a newspaper. The reason newspapers still exist is because its workers are so dedicated. In the face of an unimaginable crisis, people arrived at work to make sure the public was informed about what was happening. They say people come together during a crisis, and this disaster in the Merrimack Valley proves that point. I hope the towns recover swiftly so everything returns to normal, or as close to normal as life can get in these uncertain times we live in. I’m just happy I live in Stoneham where I only have to worry about E. coli in the water supply.

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