Oct. 14–On Sept. 13, thousands of people’s lives changed drastically when over-pressurized natural gas lines caused fires and explosions to rip through the Merrimack Valley. A teenager died, dozens of people were hospitalized, and gas service was cut to homes and businesses in the region.
One month after the initial incident, impacted people are faced with a new day-to-day without heat or hot water until gas is restored.
Many residents remain skeptical of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts’ stated restoration date of Nov. 19, and frustrated with the lack of cohesive communication from the company.
“The biggest frustration I’ve had overall is the lack of communication,” said Desiree McDonough of North Andover. “This isn’t about making money, this isn’t about pulling one over on Columbia Gas, this whole process is to make our homes safer than they were on Sept. 12.”
McDonough said she hopes as the days go on people in all three communities will work together as they continue to struggle and adapt.
“Just remember to help each other,” she said. “More people need to do that, we need to come together and connect as a community, as opposed to dividing and trying to get stuff from each other.”
Andrea O’Donnell of North Andover took cold showers for the first two weeks after the incident. But on one chilly morning, she turned to her husband and said she couldn’t even imagine walking into the shower knowing the water would never get warm.
O’Donnell echoed sentiments of many residents The Eagle-Tribune has spoken to over the past few weeks: She’s just grateful for her safety, because it could have been much worse.
More than 130 homes suffered damage ranging from total explosion to appliance fires, and dozens of people were injured.
On Sept. 13, as the pressure climbed inside the pipelines, firefighter Pat Ruiz radioed Lawrence fire Chief Brian Moriarty about a situation at South Union and Salem streets.
“They think a regulator somewhere blew up. … One of the guys almost got killed over here,” Ruiz says in an audio recording obtained by The Eagle-Tribune.
Lawrence police Chief Roy Vasque was one of the first to respond to 35 Chickering Road, where a five-bedroom house exploded, killing Leonel Rondon, 18, and injuring four others, including Shakira Figueroa, 21, who suffered massive leg injuries and has undergone numerous surgeries. The Figueroa family has filed a lawsuit against Columbia Gas.
As bad as that scene was, Vasque said he now realizes “the whole neighborhood could have been wiped out.”
Columbia Gas said this week the company has replaced more than 24 miles of pipe, added 35 claims adjusters, and will be bringing in hundreds more workers as they ramp up restoration efforts to hit their forecast deadline of Nov. 19.
This week, the National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report on the disaster, confirming it was caused by overpressurized lines.
The report said Columbia Gas overlooked critical pressure sensors in its instructions to contracted workers replacing outdated pipeline in South Lawrence.
Workers were removing cast-iron gas lines from the intersection of Salem and South Union streets and replacing them with PVC pipes when the explosions began, investigators said. Pressure sensors located inside the cast-iron pipe were not accounted for in a work order that Columbia Gas had provided to its contractors, according to the report.
Once the contracted crews disconnected the line that was going to be abandoned, the sensors detected a drop in pressure, and regulators within the system “responded by opening further,” allowing more gas into the pipeline and “increasing the pressure in the distribution system,” the report states.
Without the pressure sensors to alert the system it had reached pressure capacity, the regulators “fully opened allowing the full flow of high-pressure gas to be released into the distribution system supplying the neighborhood, exceeding the maximum allowable pressure,” the report continues.
On Friday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities ordered a moratorium on all gas work by the company, with the exception of the restoration efforts in the Merrimack Valley. Columbia Gas — a subsidiary of Indiana-based NiSource — supplies natural gas to around 300,000 customers in parts of the state around Springfield, Brockton, and Lawrence.
The DPU also ordered every natural gas pipeline operator in the state to immediately review its specific procedures to ensure best practices.
Many people acknowledge the scope of the crisis, and remain thankful to the first-responders and people on the ground in the three communities working to get their lives back to normal. Most are targeting their frustration at Columbia Gas.
“This is unprecedented, right, so you have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt,” said Heather Cleary of Andover. “But it feels like no two people have had the same experience.”
Seana Mulcahy of Andover is a single mom with a 12-year-old son.
She remembered getting a reverse 911 call Sept. 13, telling her to turn off gas and evacuate her home. Her initial thought was a terrorist attack.
For days, Mulcahy and her son stayed in friends’ homes and relied on their support network to get information and resources.
“In the back of my mind, I’m like okay, I just hope my house didn’t blow up,” she said.
Four days after the initial incident, she returned home.
“We’ve been hunkering down, but it’s too long,” she said. “I’m always thinking, there’s people worse off … but it’s been hard. … This is bad enough, how long is it going to last? How long can I do this?”
Reporters Kiera Blessing and Jill Harmacinski contributed to this story.
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