Richard Hamm was just a boy when, on Feb. 9, 1972, a massive explosion at the Lowell Gas Co. plant on Chapman Road literally sent shockwaves through the town of Tewksbury.
The blast, which could be felt 15 miles away, rocked Hamm's family home, which was located just a quarter-mile from the plant, knocking items off shelves and off the walls.
"My mother thought it was my brother and me (horsing) around," said Hamm, now a
The explosion injured nearly two dozen Tewksbury Firefighters, several seriously. Firefighter William McAllister died from his injuries a week later. Capt. Frederick Millett also sustained injuries that night, injuries that contributed to a fatal heart attack 11 months later, said Hamm.
On Sunday, Feb. 12, at 10 a.m., a Memorial Mass. will be held at the Oblates Novitiate House, 486 Chandler St., to mark the 40th Anniversary of the tragedy. The event is being co-sponsored by the Tewksbury and Billerica Fire Departments. The BFD also lost a firefighter in the explosion.
The public is invited to attend the service and the reception that follows.
According to several historical accounts of the explosion and fire, the initial fire call came in around 10:40 p.m., the night of Feb. 9. A short time later, a second alarm was sounded.
According to Hamm, firefighters were able to respond quickly to the second alarm because there had been a union meeting a the Central Station that night, after which firefighters had walked over to the Board of Selectmen's meeting at Town Hall.
According to an article that appeared in the April 1972 edition of the magazine Fire Command!, the fire was caused by a tanker truck colliding with a liquified natural gas tank at the plant, causing a leak. (See PDF attachment.)
Some firefighters battled the blaze, which climbed high into the night sky, while others tried to keep the tank cooled down. But it was a losing battle. A small fire formed under the tank, prompting Fire Chief William Chandler to call for his men to retreat at 10:54 p.m.
Barely a minute later, the tank exploded, causing a fireball that climbed hundreds of feet in the air and, according to reports, could be seen from as far as 50 miles away.
The driver of the truck was killed in the explosion. Retreating firefighters were thrown into the air and the tank, according to Hamm, was thrown hundreds of feet into the woods. A third alarm was sounded and help from surrounding communities, as well as Hanscom Field, converged on the scene. It was midnight before the fire was under control.
"The (fireball) was so intense that firefighters had their coats burned right off their backs," said Hamm, adding that the incident inspired 3M to develop fireproof coats for firefighters.
According to Fire Command!, the explosion and fire did an estimated $150,000 in damage to the plant and another $70,000 in damage to TFD vehicles. One engine was completely destroyed.
It took months for the TFD to recover from the incident, as men recovered from their injuries and equipment was replaced. But the deaths of McAllister and, later, Millett left a lasting scar on the department.
In 2001, the newly built South Fire Station was dedicated to the memory of Millett and McAllister.