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Gas company vows to help Springfield victims recover

SPRINGFIELD — More than a year after a tornado ripped homes apart here, residents are facing destruction of a downtown section where a gas explosion Friday crumbled brick walls and left hundreds homeless. The two disasters in as many years hit a city that has struggled to gain fiscal stability and rein in blight and crime, and its residents have grown weary.

“I don’t want to think about what may be next,” said Cliff Mansfield, 57, who lives about a dozen blocks away from the scene of the explosion but felt it rock his home.

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Mansfield, eating lunch Monday on a park bench at the corner of Court and Main streets downtown, scoffed at the notion that the city is enduring a string of “bad luck.”

“It’s just one of those things; you rebuild and move on,” he said. “The kicker for me is that where this happened, my bus stop is right out front. I’m usually there every day at 5:30, but not Friday luckily.”

The blast occurred at 5:25 p.m. Friday at Scores Gentleman’s Club just over an hour after callers reported an odor of gas in the building at 453 Worthington St. Workers from Columbia Gas of Massachusetts were on scene within 25 minutes of the initial call, and they evacuated 12 to 20 people from the club.

Workers had cut service to the building and gas levels inside had started to decrease when the explosion shook Springfield’s entertainment district.

William Meadows, 66, left his nearby sixth-floor condominium when he heard the blast with only the clothes on his back. He was among the first residents to meet Monday with an insurance representative.

“The boom was unbelievable, and I knew we had to get the heck out,” he said. “I’m still wearing the same clothes as during the blast. I don’t know what I have left.

“You know, we had that tornado thing [in June 2011], and I was talking to a neighbor who moved in recently after her place was hit by the tornado, and she said ‘here we go again.’ ”

About 100 residents and business and property owners came to City Hall Monday carrying lists of personal belongings and property damaged in the explosion, expenses that Columbia Gas promised to cover.

“Our hearts are with them, particularly people whose homes have been impacted. I think that’s the part that disturbs me the most,” said Stephen Bryant, president of Columbia Gas, speaking with reporters outside a second-floor room at City Hall, where the temporary claims center had been set up.

“If you don’t have a place, a refuge to go home to, it’s extra difficult . . . we’ve impacted businesses, and I think we’ll do all the things necessary to get things back to normal as soon as possible.”

The claim center will reopen Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and officials with the gas company expect another 100 claimants. The company also said it has established a new claim hotline at 800-451-4527, which will be staffed by a claims representative between 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The total cost of the damage has not yet been specified by authorities, and most claimants are not sure of the extent of their personal loss since they have not been allowed to return to their residences.

“This is the first step in the process, said Sheila Doiron, spokeswoman for Columbia Gas.

Jasmine Torres, 22, lived with her boyfriend, Anthony Rosa, 23, on Chestnut Street. On Friday, she heard a loud boom and suddenly felt herself being tossed off her feet. Rosa rushed to her, and they fled in stocking feet outside.

“Right now, we have no home, no clothes, no food,” Torres said, looking exhausted. “We can’t get back in, so we’re here trying to figure out what they can do for us.”

Businesses have experienced slow sales and a lack of customers because of road closures near the scene of the blast and damage to storefronts.

“We thought it was a bomb or something; the glass just blew off the wall,” said Andre Acevedo, 26, who was cutting a client’s hair at the time inside Springfield Barbershop on Bridge Street.

Plywood now covers the front of the shop, but it is still open. “We’re losing money because everyone looks at the front and thinks we’re closed,” Acevedo said.

As the property damage assessment continues, investigators with the state Department of Public Utilities are attempting to find out what exactly went wrong.

Ann G. Berwick, DPU chairwoman, said in a phone interview that the markings intended to indicate where the gas line was located underground were off by 2 feet. She said she did not know when the markings were laid down.

Berwick said she had no information on statements that a club employee had made to the Globe Friday night, saying she had smelled gas in the building for months. The company has said that before Friday, it had no record of complaints of gas odors in the building, and the interior piping passed inspection during a routine review over the summer.

Daniel D. Kelly, the attorney representing Scores Gentleman’s Club, could not say whether management had called Columbia Gas to report a gas odor, but said the company visited the site several months ago as part of routine maintenance and should have detected any leaks then.

“If there was a problem, then they should have taken care of it back then,” Kelly said. . Berwick said she is not sure when the investigation will be completed, and said Columbia Gas is being completely cooperative.

Doiron said that the service technician, dispatched Friday to check on the gas odor reports and working on the line, followed procedure.

“From all indications we have so far, he took the necessary precautions in checking the location of the lines,” Doiron said. “There were markings on the street; he used that as a visual, as well as the standard protocol. He measured 2 feet to the side, but that was exactly where the gas line was.”

She said the company is working with the DPU to interview the employee who made the markings, as well as looking at all records pertaining to the installation and maintenance of the gas line that was ruptured by the service technician.

Doiron said the line was not corroded. A plastic tube was inserted through the gas line in 1993 to reinforce it, she said.

Doiron also said the company has checked its records to see if residents made any calls complaining of gas odor in the weeks or months prior to the explosion.

“No call came in,” she said. “Not until Friday, and we sent someone right away.”

Michell Plaud, senior pastor of House of Mercy Church, filled out a claim with the gas company and was told he would get money soon to help find another place to worship with his congregation and the community, and perhaps eventually rebuild. Plaud’s church, across the street from the strip club, was condemned.

“We built the church. We put everything there, the walls, everything,” he said. “We’re going to need money for sure, a lot of money.”

But, he said, “We’re still here, and we’re going to start again.”

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at ­@globeballou.
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