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As South Lawrence residents return home, fears linger: ‘I don’t feel safe.’

‘We came back, but I don’t feel safe. I want this to be fixed. I don’t want to go through this again,’ said Glenny Garcia,, a resident of Crosby Street in Lawrence who evacuated her home early Friday morning due to a gas emergency.
‘We came back, but I don’t feel safe. I want this to be fixed. I don’t want to go through this again,’ said Glenny Garcia,, a resident of Crosby Street in Lawrence who evacuated her home early Friday morning due to a gas emergency. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

LAWRENCE — Glenny Garcia was sound asleep Friday morning in the Crosby Street home she shares with her family when their peace was shattered by emergency crews pounding on the front door, ordering them out of the house.

For the second time in a year, Garcia and her family were driven from their home as a gas emergency struck South Lawrence.

“It was very scary,” said Garcia, 37, standing outside her front door Sunday. “No one is confident; we don’t know if we are really safe.”

Sometime before 3 a.m. Friday, a subcontractor working from flawed records closed a valve on what was marked as a water line on South Broadway but in reality was a gas main. The valve punctured the line and gas was released.

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Hundreds had to be evacuated, gas and electrical services were cut, and the ordeal served as a painful reminder of the gas disaster that rocked the Merrimack Valley with explosions and fires on Sept. 13, 2018, leveling buildings and claiming the life of a Lawrence teen.

The recurrence of a gas emergency just a year later left residents shaken and asking: What could be next?

“We came back, but I don’t feel safe,” Garcia said. “I want this to be fixed. I don’t want to go through this again.”

On Saturday, officials said the valve that pierced the gas line at the corner of Salem Street and South Broadway should have been removed during reconstruction following last year’s disaster. That work, which included placing plastic lines into the existing mains, required the removal of old valves.

Removal of the valve involved in Friday’s incident was the responsibility of the utility, Columbia Gas, said company spokesman Scott Ferson on Sunday.

Following Friday’s gas leak, crews removed that valve and another that should have been disconnected, which was discovered during subsequent inspections.

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Workers from the Indiana subcontractor firm who closed the valve were part of a road-paving project for the city, and had been conducting inspections of more than 1,400 water valves since March. They had been working from data compiled by another firm in 2013 that mislabeled the gas valve as a water valve.

After the line was pierced, the crew smelled gas, but didn’t realize what had happened. A police officer working a detail assignment at the construction site smelled the gas around 3:15 a.m. and alerted other emergency responders.

Around 4 a.m., area residents were evacuated by police and firefighters going door-to-door or using bullhorns. Hundreds were moved to Arlington Middle School.

Some — including Garcia and her family — returned home later in the day. But many others stayed Friday night at homes of family members or friends.

Mayor Daniel Rivera said Saturday that more than 80 people had stayed in hotels the previous night.

After utilities were restored Saturday, Rivera asked residents to return home so utility crews could relight gas service. By Sunday night, most customers’ service had been restored.

“We understand their unease. . . . It’s a toll on everybody, but the response happened the way it should have,” Ferson said.

In South Lawrence, the Rev. Paul O’Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church, was among those roused from their beds early Friday by first responders. Throughout the ordeal, he remained at the church, which held Masses on Saturday and Sunday.

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O’Brien said the community pulled together in the wake of the emergency, including first responders, local officials, residents, and crews from Columbia Gas.

“People were sincerely thankful for the bad things that did not happen this time. . . and for the good that did happen during this emergency,” O’Brien said.

Durham Street resident Wilfredo Franco, 22, said the sight of utility crews at work on South Broadway on Sunday was a good sign.

“It’s bad that this happened twice in a year,” Franco said. “But [utility crews] are doing their job. They are fixing it.”

But for some, the emergencies have taken their toll.

Naury Tejada, 39, who also lives on Durham Street with her husband and their two young children, had to be evacuated and stayed with family on Friday night. Going back was difficult.

“The kids didn’t want to come home,” Tejada said Sunday. “They’re scared. They slept in my bed last night.”

Down the road, George Sandoval, 65, watched as a work crew replaced a back door that had been broken down by firefighters Friday morning.

The first responders were trying to get everyone out of the neighborhood, and had to smash open the door to get inside the house, which is owned by Sandoval’s son, he said.

He estimates the replacement will cost $700. But his mind remained on the fear he felt Friday.

“It’s terrible. I can’t sleep,” Sandoval said. “I don’t feel good; I’m still nervous.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.

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