The Salvation Army remembers Merrimack Valley

by Hugo Bravo

On the afternoon of September 13, 2018, overpressured natural gas lines in the Merrimack Valley area in Massachusetts caused explosions across the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. For two and a half hours, over 80 fires caused homes to be destroyed in the area, with the damage costs totaling over $1 billion. The memory of that day continues to shape the work of the Salvation Army Massachusetts Emergency Disaster Services (EDS), as well as the pastors and spiritual leaders who came with them to Merrimack.

“I’m never going to forget that experience,” says Envoy Lynnette Valentine-Warren, of the Salvation Army in Fitchburg, MA. “I’ve seen so many fires, but Merrimack still hits heavy in my heart.”

“We didn’t really think about it as we were driving there, but as we passed through the town, we could hear the echo of houses exploding. Afterwards, there was always a strange, silent calm, like the one you hear in a movie when you know something is about to jump out. I knew we were here to do God’s work, but I wondered aloud if we were safe,” says Envoy Lynette.

Her team was assigned to a local school, where displaced families had gathered to as The Salvation Army took over the cafeteria kitchen and prepared food to serve. Though she remembers the pain and somberness emanating from inside the building, she was grateful for having been sent to that location. “I wanted to talk to these families and pray with them; pastoral care was very much needed in that moment.”

The Salvation Army had a hot meal and an ear to listen to the families who did not know if they still had a house to go home to. But there were also opportunities to meet unique needs, especially to the children of Merrimack Valley.

“I kept toys in the canteens, because there was always a child who had lost a beloved doll or stuffed animal in a fire,” says Envoy Lynette. “When I heard a mom say that her daughter had lost her teddy bear, I went to the back and gave her one we had on hand. That little girl clung to that gift.”

“There were all these beautiful children just like her, in tears and scared about what was going on. I just wanted to hug them and tell them they were going to be okay.”

Lawrence youth pastor Paula Baigorria’s team was assigned to a recovery center, away from the scene of the explosions. By the time her team arrived, there were already lines of people waiting for help.

“At the recovery center, families could get gift certificates and vouchers to help them rebuild, but what they really appreciated was the presence of someone to listen, offer encouragement, and be reassured that they were not alone in this tragedy,” says Paula.

“People had tears in their eyes when they were reminded that God was still there with them, and that in their most desperate times was when God’s the closest to them,” says Paula. “They also knew that The Salvation Army was going to be with them in their recovery as well. We had resources waiting for them even beyond their rebuilding. For example, the following summer, there were children from Merrimack who came to our Salvation Army camps and vacation bible study for the first time.”

“I had four words that I shared with everyone who had suffered this terrible loss. But you’re still here. And the rebuilding starts right now’,” says Envoy Lynette. “We cannot ever go back, only forward one second, one minute, one hour, and one day at a time. In the middle of heavy loss, we must remain grateful, because you are still here.”