Metro

‘Yesterday he was celebrating.’ Today, friends and family mourn for Lawrence teen

Leonel Rondon was sitting inside a car in Lawrence when a chimney from a house that exploded fell.
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Leonel Rondon was sitting inside a car in Lawrence when a chimney from a house that exploded fell.

LAWRENCE — They were four young friends, sitting in an SUV parked in a driveway late Thursday afternoon, celebrating as teenager Leonel Rondon talked excitedly about his new driver’s license.

It was a rite of passage in the adventure from adolescence to young adulthood, and Rondon was savoring the feel of the driver’s seat in Christian Figueroa’s car.

Suddenly, they heard a bang, and felt the shock waves from one of the gas explosions that ripped through Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover. As stunned as the four friends were, the worst was an instant away.

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Weakened by the blast, the walls of Figueroa’s house on Chickering Road collapsed, toppling a chimney onto the SUV and ending Rondon’s young life a few hours later at Massachusetts General Hospital. It was the only fatality in the explosions and fires that rocked the Merrimack Valley.

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On Friday, the family of the 18-year-old high school student reeled from the shock and disbelief. His father stood outside his townhouse on Chestnut Street and embraced friends, neighbors, and loved ones.

He had dropped Rondon at the Figueroa home to celebrate after the driving test, a family friend said. He later heard of an accident on Spanish-language television. And finally, in a devastating phone call, he learned that the victim, who had died, was his son.

Inside the family’s house, wailing could be heard Friday. People shuffled in and out with tears in their eyes.

“The family is broken apart,” said Luis Medina, a longtime friend. “This family just needs to mourn their son.’’

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Recalling the events a day later, Christian Caraballo, 19, said that he was with Rondon and their two friends, Christian and Sergio Figueroa, who were all sitting inside the car in the Figueroa family’s driveway and talking. The Figueroas’ mother had just gone inside the house to cook, he said.

“We heard a noise, then we felt it again and heard it,” Caraballo said. “I seen the front of the house explode to the street.”

The large brick chimney fell onto the roof of the car, on the driver’s side.

Rondon’s friends desperately tried to pull him from the car. But the damage was too great, and Rondon’s body was too entwined with the chimney bricks and the battered metal to wrest him free.

Only minutes before, Rondon had talked excitedly about the new car his mother had promised him, and the prospect of a new job. Now, his friends, bruised and shaken up, felt a whiplash of emotions as the tragedy continued to unfold.

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The mother of the Figueroas rushed screaming from the remains of the house, shouting that her daughter was trapped inside.

Caraballo was also stuck in the car. “My legs were pinched due to the impact of the chimney . . . the seat wouldn’t let me out,” he said.

Police and firefighters soon arrived. The sister of the two brothers suffered leg injuries that required hospital treatment.

It will be a slow return to normalcy after the fires Thursday

Medina recalled that Rondon liked skateboarding and playing sports with his siblings, three older sisters and a younger brother. On a piece of notebook paper, Rondon’s family wrote that he was excited about life and cared deeply for his friends and family. He was loving and respectful, they said. He liked to have fun, and enjoyed cars, fashion, and sneakers.

“Everyone knew who he was,” said Cassandra Carrion, 20. “It’s crazy how this happened.”

He was quiet, funny, and a loyal friend, she said of Rondon, a math and biology whiz at Phoenix Charter Academy. When Carrion and her sister went to parties with Rondon, he would always keep an eye out for them, she recalled.

“He’d be the one that would be overprotective and watching out for us, and making sure nobody bothered us,” she said.

Altabeira Ventura, 39, called her cousin a “good boy” with a bright future. “He had a job interview on Sunday,” Ventura said. “And his mom was going to buy him a car. He was a really good kid, really humble.”

Miriam Taveras, 69, said the neighborhood was mourning together. Rondon lived behind her and often walked past her front garden, Taveras said. He grew up with her son, Kenny, and she teased him about his sagging pants, so he made sure to pull them up when he stopped by.

“He always made sure to come in, hug me, and say, ‘Bendición!’ ” a blessing in Spanish and a sign of respect to elders, she said. “Yesterday, he was celebrating. He said, ‘I won! I won, Kenny!’ because my son only has his [driver’s learning] permit.”

The young men spoke often.

“My son was really sad last night,” Taveras said. “I tried to calm him down before he went to bed.”

Carmen Lugo, 50, sat with Taveras under a shady tree near sunflowers and other blooms in the garden. “He’s a local,” Lugo said. “Here we act like we’re all family.”

In a statement, Lawrence school officials recalled Rondon as “an outgoing, light-hearted, hands-on learner who particularly loved science and excelled in biology and math.”

“He had just begun his junior year at Phoenix after a successful 2017-18, and teachers recall his drive to graduate as a model to classmates,” the statement said. “He will be greatly missed both in school and at home, and his family, friends and loved ones are in the thoughts of everyone throughout the Phoenix network and Lawrence public schools.”

Adam Vaccaro of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com