LAWRENCE — Many residents in South Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover will have to wait weeks before they can cook or take hot showers, as Columbia Gas announced Sunday that it would replace 48 miles of pipeline in the communities rocked by a string of explosions and fires last week.
Replacing the cast-iron and steel pipes is the best way of ensuring that the system is safe before turning on the gas to these communities, said Joe Hamrock, the president and chief executive of NiSource Inc., the Indiana parent company of Columbia Gas.
The company had plans to eventually put new pipes in place, Hamrock said, but Thursday’s incident placed excess pressure on these underground arteries and expedited the need to replace them.
“We’re deeply sorry for the devastating impact on the community and how disruptive the incident has been for the daily life,” Hamrock said. “We’re in this for the long run. This is going to take time to get life back to normal.”
A Lawrence teen died and at least 25 people were injured in the fires and explosions. Leonel Rondon, 18, was killed when a chimney fell on the car he was sitting in during one of the explosions.
On Sunday, thousands of families who had trickled back to their homes after Thursday evening’s sudden evacuation, were greeted with rotting food in refrigerators, damaged basements, and more confusion.
At a claims center in the old Lawrence High School, Columbia Gas turned away hundreds of residents Sunday who had waited for hours to submit damage claims.
Within hours of opening the claims center in the old Lawrence High School, the line of families seeking relief and answers snaked around the building and across the street to the library, overwhelming the utility company’s ability to address all their needs in one day.
After waiting in some cases for as many as three hours in the hot sun, families were given a blue ticket and told to return Monday.
Many were frustrated by the delays and the lack of answers.
“It’s horrible that they did this now,” said Richard Cruz, who was told three hours after getting in line that he probably wouldn’t have a chance to make his claim Sunday. Cruz said he works during the week until 6 p.m. and will have to come back Monday and stand in line again.
He had spent more than $500 in the past four days on a hotel, food, and gas, and wants to get reimbursed, he said.
Columbia Gas officials should have realized earlier that their system for processing claims was inadequate, instead of making families wait in lines for so long, said Renata Rena, who stood about 100 people deep with her 3-year-old daughter.
Many residents wasted time in line, Rena said, instead of cleaning up their homes from the damage caused by several days without electricity or gas, Rena said.
“I am tired. I am frustrated,” she said.
Columbia Gas officials said they saw more than 570 people Sunday, but that processing the claims paperwork was time-intensive. The company was also providing families with gift cards worth $100 to $300 to handle emergency food and other needs.
The company had about 30 representatives working in the claims center, and plans to double that staff on Monday, said Daniel Ball, a spokesman for the company who came from Ohio to deal with the response.
The utility company’s handling of Thursday’s incident has been criticized by Governor Charlie Baker and Lawrence city officials, who have been angry at the slow response and vague answers from Columbia Gas.
Last week, Baker declared a state of emergency and called in Eversource, a competing utility, to manage the restoration.
On Sunday, Baker said he had heard complaints about the long lines.
Baker “expects Columbia to appropriately staff the claims center to address concerns raised by the residents affected by Thursday’s incident,” said Sarah Finlaw, a spokeswoman for Baker.
Hamrock on Sunday said he regretted the company’s poor communications in the immediate aftermath, but that Columbia Gas employees were focused on recovery.
It is still unclear what triggered the blasts and flames. The National Transportation Safety Board on Sunday said gas was flowing into pipes at much higher rates than normal, but why that happened is unclear. NTSB investigators did find on Sunday morning that in at least one underground situation, gas pressure sensor equipment was connected to a pipeline that was taken out of service and had been capped off.
Investigators are also interviewing Columbia gas employees, looking at the utility’s maintenance and training records, and constructing a timeline to pinpoint potential breakdowns and causes.
Hamrock said the utility company is cooperating with the NTSB and will take responsibility for the agency’s findings.
Everyday life in the affected neighborhoods started to show signs of resuming Sunday. Most streets were reopened, electricity was restored, children raced bikes along sidewalks, and one resident on Abbott Street in Lawrence smoked a turkey in his backyard, while nearby grocery stores, barbershops, and even a few bars were back in business.
Inside their homes, families emptied their refrigerators of rotting food and washed dirty dishes that had been left in the rush to evacuate.
Yanery Genere, 29, hauled a plastic box filled with donated blankets, dried soups, and toy trucks up two flights of stairs to her Lawrence apartment. She, her 1½-year-old son, and her mother stayed at her friend’s house in Methuen with two other families.
An endless list of tasks awaits her in the days ahead: She has to clean the fridge, buy new groceries, figure out if she has to go to work Monday, and find her car, which she left at the repairman’s when she heard the first explosions on Thursday and raced home. But returning to her apartment has been a relief, not only for her, but her son, Francis, who kept asking for his “casa.”
“I am trying to digest what happened,” Genere said.
Still, the sound of sirens now makes her jumpy and she plans to pack an emergency bag of diapers and medicines, just in case there’s another evacuation.
And in Lawrence, parents will have to make child-care arrangements, as the city’s schools will be closed on Monday, with no word about Tuesday or the rest of the week.
Jim and Denise Woodhall, owners of J&B Lounge, arrived at the bar at 8 in the morning Sunday to start cleaning. They threw away beer that had spoiled without refrigeration, and warmed water in the microwave to clean up the counters.
They planned to reopen the bar, which has been in the family for decades and served steelworkers and locals, in the evening. Beer would be served in plastic cups, though.
“It’s been a long four days,” Jim Woodhall said. And the couple still have many unanswered questions, including what they’re going to do about the two units they rent above the bar, which won’t have gas for weeks.
State and local officials pleaded for patience on Sunday.
Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence said that city officials will work with residents to eliminate red tape.
“This is not a time to make sure we have three copies of every document.”