, Salem, MA

November 20, 2007

The rebuilding of Danversport: One year later, here's what we've learned

Matthew K. Roy

DANVERS — For decades in Danversport, the ink and paint plant was an anonymous neighbor.

Many residents of nearby homes didn't know it was there. Others had only a passing understanding of what happened inside. All Dave Marcou of 3 Bates St. knew was that the plant made ink for the sheer plastic bags used in supermarkets. That's what a neighbor had told him.

"I knew there was an ink factory there, but I'm not a chemist," said Marcou, whose back yard faced the plant. "You assume that inspections are happening and everything is on the up and up."

The peaceful -- and in retrospect, naive -- coexistence of the plant and its neighbors came to an abrupt and destructive end in the early morning hours of Nov. 22, 2006 -- one year ago tomorrow.

Maybe a plant worker failed to turn off the heat warming an unsealed batch of chemicals for ink manufacturer CAI, Inc. Maybe the steam heating system malfunctioned.

What federal and state investigators each found was that the volatile mixture, including heptane and propyl alcohol, was overheated.

The plant's ventilation system wasn't on, as it should have been, and eventually the empty building was choked with flammable vapors from the chemical mixture. Then a spark from a still-unknown source somewhere in the plant's electronic machinery ignited the potent cocktail.

The 2:46 a.m. explosion, felt as far away as New Hampshire, collapsed roofs, blew out windows, unhinged deadbolted front doors and sent residents scurrying in their underwear toward an uncertain future. In Danvers, it also gave the date -- Nov. 22 -- a new significance.

"I was 11 years old when John Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22," Town Manager Wayne Marquis said. "That day had been ingrained in my brain as the day JFK died.

"But after Nov. 22 2006, Nov. 22 to me will be the day that we had the explosion in Danversport. It will always be that because it was like nothing I've ever experienced. I'm sure I'm not alone in that."

Lessons learned

A year later, what have we learned?

We've learned that the shining silver lining doesn't fade. People still shake their heads in wonder and appreciation that a blast that damaged more than 100 homes and displaced 70 families didn't kill anyone.

"That is huge," said Susan Tropeano of 4 Bates St. Court. "It still amazes us."

Nobody died. Nobody was seriously hurt.

Then governor and now presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited Danversport on the day of the explosion and called it a "Thanksgiving miracle."

The miracle has made it possible to celebrate the neighborhood's rebirth. It wouldn't be the same if lives were lost.

"It would have created a damper, a pall over everything," Marquis said.

But the blessing has been tempered by what the blast revealed. Federal authorities determined that CAI and Arnel Co. had ignored safety regulations and lacked safeguards on equipment that could have prevented the explosion.

The plant's flawed operation went undetected. It was an island unto itself, invisible to federal, state and local authorities.

"It was a rude awakening for me," Tropeano said. "I was shocked to find out that nobody was inspecting that plant."

Neighbors swallowed this hard truth while living through another -- getting back into their damaged homes was a time, money and energy-draining ordeal.

They learned what it felt like to have a second, full-time job. Marcou's old home was condemned and demolished within weeks of the explosion. He's yet to move into his new one.

"The whole process is time-consuming," Marcou said about dealing with insurance and mortgage companies, contractors and builders. "You're immersed in it constantly."

Neighbors learned that in a standoff over money, insurance companies never blink first. "You can't outwait them,"said John Lovatt of Bates Street Court.

After all, insurers weren't living with their two young sons in a cramped apartment off Route 128. They weren't stuck in the same hotel room for months with a nonstop stream of strangers as temporary neighbors.

To get back home, to a new or refurbished one, many plant neighbors took money out of their own pockets. "Financially," Marcou said, "you're set back by at least two years, minimum."

Even when they did return home, neighbors learned their problems followed them. All Alan Greene kept thinking his first night back in his 24 Bates St. home was, "Am I going to sleep tonight?"

Pulling together

But it wasn't all hardship in the wake of the explosion.

We learned the power of community, as support for those affected by the blast poured in from across the town and throughout the region.

Without being asked, people who knew sign language showed up at Danvers High School the morning of the explosion because they'd learned from news reports that the residents of the New England Home for the Deaf had been evacuated there.

That's just one example.

A relief fund generated roughly $550,000 in donations.

"Clearly, the town has pulled together," Ed Sanborn of Riverside Street said. "We have seen the strength of Danvers."

We've learned that a prepared and responsive town government could make life easier for overwhelmed victims of the blast.

"We're going to be with you all the way through this," Marquis told anxious Danversport residents two days after the explosion. The town manager and the rest of the town's employees have kept the promise.

Police, fire, public works, building inspectors, among others -- "They all really stepped up," said Lenny Mercier, a volunteer for the Danvers Community Council. "They went and above and beyond."

So did the Community Council. A group that typically meets three or four times a year convened three or four times a week to manage disbursement of the relief fund.

We learned that the explosion and the shared experience of surviving it can bring a neighborhood together, can turn strangers into friends.

"It's a humbling experience itself, to realize that you've got so many talented and great people just living within walking distance," Marcou said.

They've been there on the street, watching each others' homes get knocked down or put up. They've united to form an association, SAFE (Safe Area for Everyone), that successfully pressured the companies to relinquish their license to store flammable materials, and they've proposed the creation of a Hazardous Material Safety Board.

"The people in the neighborhood, I would say, have been the real heroes in this," Marquis said.

"They've gone about, working together, to rebuild their neighborhood, rebuild their lives with dignity. The positive attitude that they have had throughout this has been remarkable."