On the road to recovery

A year after a blast tore apart the neighborhood, Danversport is pulling itself back together

Email|Print| Text size + By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / November 18, 2007

Alan and Andrea Farrell were asleep when an ink and paint factory exploded into a fireball, turning the night sky orange.

The explosion rocked their Cape-style home on Bates Street in Danversport off its foundation. Glass shards and plaster chips covered everything. The couple quickly dressed, grabbed their cellphones and Willy, their beloved Siberian husky, then fled.

"The worst thing was, we didn't know what was going on," Andrea, 62, said softly. "It looked like everything was on fire."

Nov. 22, 2006 - Thanksgiving Eve - was a night to remember in Danversport. A chemical explosion at 2:46 a.m. tore apart the neighborhood in seconds. Dozens of homes and businesses were destroyed. Others were left with no windows or doors, crushed roofs, or buried in rubble.

A year after the blast, Danversport is a neighborhood reborn.

Twenty-nine homes and businesses have been built. More than $13 million has been invested in new homes and businesses. About $1 million in public improvements to streets, sidewalks, and sewer lines is due to begin in the spring.

Much of the new construction has changed the character of the peninsula on the Crane and Waters rivers.

Gone are the Cape-style and two-family homes, many owned by generations. In their place are bigger houses with vinyl siding instead of wood shingles. Many are prefabricated, dropped into place in sections by a crane.

Some, like the Farrells, opted for traditional construction. "It was the best route to go for us," Alan said.

Four homes remain boarded up with plywood as their owners negotiate settlements with insurance companies. A house at 2 Riverside St. which is owned by the state and served as a group home run by the Department of Mental Health, is among those shuttered. Alison Goodwin, an agency spokeswoman, said the property will be fixed but "it's too soon to say" when.

Then-governor Mitt Romney called it a "Thanksgiving miracle" that no one died or was seriously injured in the predawn blast. Still, hundreds of residents were displaced for months while their homes were rebuilt or repaired.

The Farrells, whose house had to be torn down, were the first to move into a new home, returning May 5.

"This is our favorite room," said Alan, 62, seated in the living room with Willy at his side. "Our other house had small, choppy rooms. It was old. It had only one [electrical] plug in each room . . . We have a brand new home now."

Richard Maloney, the town's building inspector, said the blast left a powerful trail of ruin. "The shock wave just cut right through," said Maloney, tracing a map of the neighborhood. "You can just follow the path of the destruction, north to south."

The explosion - one of the worst industrial accidents in state history - tested the town that is home to about 26,000 on many fronts. Firefighters battled the equivalent of a 10-alarm blaze, with help from 30 other communities. Town departments faced unprecedented challenges, dealing with local residents as well as state and federal agencies.

"It required teamwork," said Wayne P. Marquis, the town manager. "No one department could do it alone. We had to work together, quickly, to solve a problem. . . . Our response wasn't perfect, but on balance, I'm very proud."

The explosion destroyed a factory shared by CAI Inc., headquartered in Georgetown, an ink manufacturer, and Arnel Co., which made industrial coatings and finishes. Arnel, the smaller of the two private firms, went out of business after the explosion.

Federal and state investigators - who spent months combing rubble for clues to the cause and origin of the explosion - determined the blast was an accident, caused by a buildup of chemical vapors inside the factory. But they do not know what ignited the explosion, officials said.

"It could have been any number of things, a Coke machine, a furnace," said James Tutko, Danvers fire chief. "We'll never know what that initial spark was."

W. Paul Needham, a Boston lawyer representing CAI, said the company is focused on the future. "The site has been pretty well cleaned up" by the EPA, he said. "The legal cases are moving along."

Three insurance companies have so far filed lawsuits to reclaim damages paid out to property owners affected by the blast, court records show.

The blast resulted in at least 464 insurance claims, totaling more than $13 million in damage to boats, cars, and homes in the neighborhood and in the area beyond, according to the state Division of Insurance.

In its wake, a new neighborhood group called SAFE - an acronym for Safe Area for Everyone - formed.

The group has lobbied town officials for increased local oversight of businesses licensed to store chemicals and pressed state and federal officials to explore whether natural gas played a role in the explosion.

Jan Schlichtmann, the Beverly lawyer whose defense of Woburn residents sickened by toxic waste led to the book and movie "A Civil Action," is advising residents. They've formed the Danversport Trust, a legal entity to broker a group settlement, instead of filing individual lawsuits against CAI and Arnel.

Starting next spring, the Fire Department will begin inspecting 35 businesses, including gas stations, big-box retailers, and two chemical factories, that hold flammable materials licenses.

The group also has asked the Board of Selectmen to create a new panel to advise the town on the storage of hazardous materials.

"Having rebuilt our lives, we want a sense of security," said Susan Tropeano, a SAFE organizer who lives on Bates Street Court. "That's why we're working with the town, to modify things."

The blast also has led to increased state oversight of small industrial plants. In May, state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan and the Department of Environmental Protection launched a pilot program to inspect 40 plants statewide that are licensed to store chemicals or chemical waste.

Tutko hopes the new inspection plans at both the state and local level will ease fears about a future explosion. "I want to assure everybody that it is a safe community," he said.

Danversport residents remain skeptical, however. Although the state fire marshal's investigation ruled out natural gas as a source of the explosion, residents aren't convinced, since many have long complained about gas leaks.

"In my mind, somehow gas got in there," said Andrea Daley, who owns two homes in the neighborhood. "I just don't believe that a chemical company could cause that much damage."

The group has hired experts to examine the factory site, gas and sewer lines. "We're trying to make sure that every avenue is looked at, every rock turned over, literally, before we're going to put this to rest " said Ed Sanborn, a SAFE organizer who lives on Riverside Street.

The explosion - which registered as a .05 earthquake on the Richter scale - still haunts Danvers.

Andrea Farrell won't likely forget the moment the boom jolted her awake.

"I sat up in bed and I looked around," she said, her voice still laced with disbelief. "It didn't even register there was a gaping hole in the wall. I just looked out and thought, 'Why is everything orange?' "

But Farrell also has found comfort in a new home.

"I still very often wake up at 2:46 a.m.," she said. "I look at the clock, and it is kind of like saying, 'OK. Everything is OK.' "

Kathy McCabe can be reached at

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