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'It Took A Village': Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera On City's Emotional Odyssey Since Gas Explosions

LAWRENCE (CBS) - It has been a year since the Merrimack Valley Explosions; a year of tragedy and triumph for Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, leading his city through an unimaginable odyssey and the emotional aftermath.

Sitting down with WBZ's Paula Ebben, Rivera reflected on the blur of a year that, for this Army veteran, seemed to begin in slow motion.

On September 18, 2018, Rivera recalls getting a call from the police chief about multiple gas explosions. He immediately rushed back from a training session in Boston.

"It wasn't 'til I got to the scene over on Chickering Road and I saw the destruction and the kind of mayhem that people were running around that I thought, you know, this is a bigger disaster than I ever thought would be happening."

Merrimack Valley Explosions
The Figueroa home on Chickering Road in Lawrence exploded Sept. 13, 2018. Leonel Rondon was killed in the blast. (WBZ-TV)

He had served as a Military Policeman in Iraq and Kuwait, Did he ever deal with a disaster of this magnitude in the military?

"In the service we were in Desert Storm, you know it was 'planned disaster.' We were attacking; they were attacking us. You know, it was that type of situation. But what we were going through on the 13th felt a lot like the refugee relief that we did after the battles."

Rivera said his military experience kicked in.

"I had a lot of really great commanders," he said. "The very first thing - they just ensured that they were present, and that they were calm, and they were in control."

The mayor had to stay in control even as his own home was evacuated. He led his city amid a tinderbox of danger, communicating each new phase of the battle plan.

When asked about the moment he learned about the death of 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, Rivera's eyes filled with tears.

Leonel Rondon
Leonel Rondon (Facebook photo)

"There was so much providence in what happened, and then you thought - all we needed was just a little bit more providence," he recalled. "It fuels a lot of the anger I have on this because they were so lucky, but they were so unlucky in that one family. We put our arms around them, and we have been taking care of them."

As a child, Rivera's own family came to Lawrence after their home burned in a fire in the Bronx, so he understood what the displaced families were going through. This time, it was his turn to hug and help families who faced a long, cold winter in temporary housing. Dan Rivera's life had come full circle.

Mayor Dan Rivera, Leonel Rondon reaction
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera teared up when talking about the loss of Leonel Rondon in the Merrimack Valley gas explosions. (WBZ-TV)

"Growing up in Lawrence and being the Mayor during the time of this big crisis just showed me that the community that gave me so much -  I had an opportunity to give back and be there for them in a way I never thought I would be able to give back, and show my appreciation.

"It took a village to make Dan Rivera and I think in the end, you know, I think the community came together and it took a village to get us out of this crisis."

As paving continues on the Lawrence streets that were ripped up for gas line repairs, Mayor Rivera says the only way to make sure this kind of disaster does not happen again is for Columbia Gas to lose their license to do business in Massachusetts.

That – he believes – is what justice would look like.

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