LOOKING BACK: Two days later, shaken workers, community reflect on day’s events
New Hampshire Ball Bearings Explosion
For some New Hampshire Ball Bearings employees, frayed nerves have given way to questions like, “When can I come back to work?” and “Can I pick up my glasses?” For many in the community, Monday’s events represented a time when neighbors rose up to meet the needs of emergency workers and those who were injured. And for most everyone, the harrowing moments and hours following that afternoon’s massive blast will become an indelible moment they’ll continue to carry with them.
Wayne Zawadowicz, a tool and die maker who works in a press room near where the explosion occurred, said he was glad the blast happened just after the second shift started, when there were fewer people working on the ground floor of the plant.
“The area is next door to me, where they do ball lapping,” Zawadowicz said. “It’s rough grinding, heat treating and lapping to size to make the balls spherical. It’s where they are made ready for assembly. There were about eight or nine people working there. Not that many, which is a good thing.”
Zawadowicz said the blast blew out drywall near his bench and a short blast of flame lightly singed his hair. But he was able to push off the debris and get to the main corridor, which leads to an exit door into the parking lot.
“At north end of parking lot, there are muster points,” he said. “Every department has safety information boards, with diagrams for where to exit.”
Zawadowicz said he’s waiting to hear about when he’ll be able to pick up his coat and other personal items, which he left behind.
“It’s just small stuff. I’m wearing my old pair of glasses because my street glasses are in my lunchbox,” he said. “When it happened, I thought about getting my coat, but I decided I would be OK. Warmth wasn’t a problem.”
Danielle Drouin of Rindge, who works the second shift at the company, said she got out of the building quickly after the explosion.
“The floor went up and down like an elevator,” Drouin said on Tuesday. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The explosion happened at 3:30 p.m., and Drouin said she didn’t leave the premises until 6:30 p.m. She said she was cold, and spent two hours warming up in a car with a couple of other coworkers. Her car was parked in the upper level of the parking area behind the building. She said everyone who parked in the lower parking level, the area closest to Route 202, had to have pictures taken of their car and license plates before they left and were required to give written statements.
Not everyone was able to grab their cell phones and keys before leaving the building, Drouin said, and those people have not been allowed back into the building since the explosion.
Drouin said much of the information she’s had has come from Facebook updates posted by other employees.
The explosion, which drew firefighters from towns as far away as Milford, Keene and Hillsborough, caught the attention of workers at nearby businesses.
Steve Bourgeois of Peterborough Collision Center on Route 202 was in the back of the shop when he felt the building shake.
“We definitely felt it. The showroom windows flexed and bowed out a little bit. It sounded like a truck hit the building. It shook us pretty good,” Bourgeois said.
Jim Grant, a 49-year veteran on the Peterborough Fire Department, was in his office at SDE, about a quarter mile away, when the explosion happened.
“The whole building shook.” Grant said. “Some of us thought it was a car hitting the building.”
Grant immediately went to the fire station and from there to the NHBB lot, where he was impressed with the cooperation of the many departments responding.
“This was the most flawless execution at a major disaster in my 49 years,” Grant said. “[Chief Joe Lenox] is calm, cool and collected. Within the first few minutes, he’d gone to a fourth alarm and directed the hospital to enact a mass casualty plan. With a fourth alarm, you don’t have to ask what you need, it just comes automatically.”
Grant said many area restaurants sent food for firefighters.
“They’ve always been good, but this was above and beyond,” he said. “We got water, coffee, donuts, pizza. McDonalds in Jaffrey sent over a slew of burgers. With more than 100 firefighters there, it was really special.”
Chris Cyganwicz, the store manager at McDonald’s, said about 100 cheeseburgers and hamburgers were sent up to Peterborough.
“Those people are out there for a long time in the cold,” she said. “We’re glad we could help.”
Student Transportation of America, the bus company that serves the ConVal School District, sent four buses to the NHBB parking lot.
Dave Carter, who manages the company’s Peterborough facility, said he got a call from mutual aid in Keene at about 4:30 p.m.
“They said they needed buses for evacuation. We’re on their list for mass casualty assistance.”
Carter, Gene Moody, Patty Ennis and Joe Cummings drove four buses down to the plant.
“They placed us in upper parking lot, and said they’d use them to keep people warm,” Carter said. “They were concerned about those who weren’t able to leave. We didn’t have a lot of people, but some got on to get warm.”
Two of the buses stayed at the site until about 6:30 p.m. and the other two were there until 8:30 p.m.
Peterborough resident Jim Orr was in the emergency room at Monadnock Community Hospital on Monday afternoon, getting checked after a spell of vertigo, when ambulances started to arrive.
“They had just begun to work with me and a nurse, Ellen Carter, came over and told me I’d have to be ‘a patient patient’ because people in a lot worse shape than me were going to arrive,” Orr said.
He was impressed with how smoothly the emergency room staff dealt with the influx of patients.
“They worked without any sense of panic,” Orr said. “They were calm and professional.”
Reporter Lindsey Arceci contributed to this story.