Lawrence, MA – A Lawrence police officer continued to help residents escape a massive gas leak that caused dozens of homes to burst into flames on Thursday night – even after he learned that his own residence was among those burning to the ground.
In an interview with TODAY, Lawrence Police Officer Ivan Soto said he had responded to Chickering Road to help a man who was trapped.
The individual he was trying to save was 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who was inside his vehicle when a home exploded and a chimney fell onto his car, WCVB reported.
“We were trying to save the young man by trying to take the chimney off,” Officer Soto explained in the TODAY interview. “We weren’t able to do that.”
“After that, I was just running up and down the street with other officers trying to evacuate, and I just thought about my own daughter being in the house,” he said.
Officer Soto paused for a moment to check in on her.
“I gave her a quick call and said, ‘I’m not sure what’s going on, but get out of the house,’” he recounted.
Officer Soto went back to work, but stopped to check on his daughter again a few minutes later.
That’s when she told him their home was in flames.
“Destiny was INSIDE our home, on the phone with me, when the first initial explosion went off under her bedroom,” Officer Soto’s wife, Veronica, wrote on the family’s fundraising page.
“I didn’t care about the house,” he told TODAY. “I just wanted to make sure my daughter was okay and all my neighbors were out of their houses.”
A coworker rushed Officer Soto to his neighborhood so he could ensure his family was safe.
"It was just really emotional," the married father-of-two said. " As soon as I knew that [she] was OK, you know, I asked to get a ride back to my cruiser so that I could get back to work and continue to evacuate other houses."
He then left his burning home, and went back to work.
“We relieved him,” Lawrence Sergeant John Dushame told The Eagle-Tribune. “But he didn’t want to leave.”
At least 10 other people were injured in the explosions, WGAL reported.
At least 80 structures went up in flames.
Officer Soto’s family was unable to retrieve or salvage anything from their home. Learning that their two cats perished in the blaze was “devastating,” he told TODAY.
“They were part of the family. So, that’s the hardest part,” he explained.
Officer Soto said the support his family has received has been “overwhelming,” and asked the community to also rally around Rondon’s family in their time of need and loss.
"I just want to make sure people are donating to the victim’s family," he explained. "That’s very important.”
“We really tried everything,” Officer Soto said solemnly. “We really tried to save him.”
Officer Soto joined the Lawrence police department earlier this year.
A fundraising account established to assist his displaced family had raised over $58,000 as of Sunday morning.
Veronica expressed appreciation for the support and generosity they have received, and also marveled at the many ways people had reached out to help all of the victims of the explosions.
“It's been a beautiful thing to see, among this chaos that has now become our life, people are being so kind and helping each other out,” she wrote on the fundraising page. “It lets me know that humanity is still alive and well. We are doing ok but we must continue.”
The fires were caused by a pressurization issue with a Columbia Gas line, MassLive reported.
Governor Charlie Baker has declared a state of emergency in the communities of North Andover, Andover, and Lawrence, and restoration is expected to take weeks to complete.