LAWRENCE, Mass. — Days after an unusual natural-gas mishap led to dozens of explosions and fires across three towns north of Boston, lawyers have filed a class-action lawsuit against Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, claiming that the company’s negligence forced residents out of more 8,600 homes, leaving them without shelter for days while officials worked to ensure their safety upon return.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday on behalf of one woman who was forced out of her home from Thursday evening through Sunday morning while authorities warned that entire neighborhoods were unsafe because of potential gas leaks and the possibility of more explosions.
The initial set of blasts appears to have occurred after the natural-gas system was overpressurized, sending gas into homes and, in some cases, igniting. There were more than 80 gas explosions reported here and in the towns of Andover and North Andover, some of which caused fires and building collapses. One Lawrence teen, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, was killed when the force of an explosion blew a chimney off a house and onto the car in which Rondon was sitting.
In a conference call, lawyers who filed the suit, including Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy Jr., son of the onetime attorney general and presidential candidate, accused Columbia Gas and its parent company, Indiana-based NiSource, of gross negligence.
“I’ve been involved in litigation against Columbia all over the country,” said Kennedy, an environmental attorney. “As they build new miles of pipe, the same company is ignoring its existing infrastructure, which we now know is eroding and is dilapidated.”
Columbia Gas also was involved in a gas explosion in Springfield, Mass., in 2012, in which a strip club was leveled, injuring 28 people, and another in West Virginia this summer in which no one was injured.
Kennedy said that the gas pressure in the pipeline just before the blast last week was 12 times what it should have been. He said his firm will be conducting an independent investigation; the National Transportation Safety Board also is investigating the disaster.
Columbia Gas has not made public statements since Friday, when Gov. Charlie Baker (R) removed the company from heading up repair operations. At the time, the company’s president, Steve Bryant, offered condolences to those affected by the disaster and said the company would do its best to help. The utility on Tuesday pledged to donate $10 million to an emergency relief fund for people affected by the explosions and fires. Bryant said he could not make any other statements until the NTSB concludes its investigation, which could take as long as two years.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera criticized the lawsuit as being premature.
“I think it’s shameful,” Rivera said at a news conference. “They are preying on these people’s desire for information. That needs to stop.”
The gas disaster was another tough turn for Lawrence, which was founded as a mill town about 25 miles north of Boston, taking advantage of water power from the Merrimack River, which it straddles. The city of 80,000 has been largely left behind, its industry collapsing and good jobs leaving. Lawrence remains the poorest city in Massachusetts, with household income at just about half the state’s $75,000 average. Its streets have seen the rise of the opioid epidemic, gang activity and crime.
But last week’s tragedy also revealed another side to this hardscrabble town — teenagers like Rondon, described as a math and science whiz, and a community with caring neighbors willing to share what little they have with others.
Lisa Rodriguez’s family and friends were among those keeping close watch over their block of Springfield Street in South Lawrence, refusing to leave, despite evacuation orders. The block was perhaps the hardest hit during the gas explosions, with three fires, including one in the basement where Rodriguez’s
best friend lives and another
two doors down from Rodriguez. That six-unit building was burned beyond repair.
Rodriguez’s extended network has been patrolling dark streets and at times shouting angrily in Spanish at lurkers — at one point she chased off a couple who had come a little too close. It was clear, Rodriguez said, that they were drug addicts looking for something to steal. She kept an eye on the pair as they repeatedly circled the block for the next hour or two.
“We don’t live on the best street,” said Rodriguez, whose best friend’s car still carries a bullet from a recent shooting here.
But from the moment the gas exploded inside their homes, they have demonstrated their determination to look after one another.
Rodriguez’s friend’s son Julio Medina, 15, had just gotten home from school Thursday when his mother called to say there was a fire in his aunt’s basement across Springfield Street. He went out to find that his cousin, 24-year-old Julean Pizarro, had just rescued his dog Punky from their smoke-filled apartment. They were watching firefighters battling a blaze down the street when they heard their aunt Lisa screaming “FIRE!”
Medina and Pizarro raced down Springfield and began shouting and banging on doors in the small apartment building. They kicked in the four downstairs front doors, tearing one from its frame. Rushing up to the second floor, Pizarro headed left and Medina went right, hurling himself against another door.
Medina said he felt heat as soon as he opened one door, and he saw a boy about 10 years old standing, frozen in the apartment. Medina had to shout at him a few times in English and Spanish before persuading the boy to hurry out of the back of the apartment, where the landlord had already been encouraging everyone to leave. Medina said he closed the door behind him as he left, to keep the fire from spreading.
Firefighters already were fighting the other two blazes, but even if they had run down the block, they would not have made it to the fast-burning house in time to save the boy, Pizarro said, praising the overall response from firefighters and police officers.
“I just did what was right,” Pizarro said. “If my son was in a house burning, I know someone would have kicked down the door and saved him.”
Pizarro and Medina said it was not the first time they’d had to take quick action to help their neighbors. Pizarro said that he has helped three people who were overdosing from drugs and that this was his third time rushing into a burning building. Medina said he helped alert neighbors to a fire six or seven years ago, when he was still in elementary school.
Both were treated and released from Lawrence General Hospital on Thursday night — Medina injured his knee when he knocked in a door, and Pizarro had inhaled smoke.
For the next few days, the family mostly hung around Springfield Street keeping watch.
After a coffee run Friday morning, it took Rodriguez and her sister Vivian Marquez two hours to make their way back home, abandoning their cars a 15-minute walk away to get past police barricades. They stayed close to home the rest of the day.
That afternoon, gas company employees went house to house making sure the gas was turned off and there were no residual leaks. A pickup basketball game broke out.
Signs on nearly every house on Springfield Street warned against loitering and called for the police to take notice. They stood in stark contrast to signs on expansive lawns just a few miles away in Andover and North Andover praising political candidates.
As the greater Lawrence community came together, forming “conga lines” to carry a truckload of donated water and bedding into the distribution center at the senior center, similar acts of generosity played out on Springfield Street.
Rodriguez overcame her newfound fear of gas to light her propane grill, and she sat on her front porch with family members, welcoming donations of meat and other goods from their neighbors.
“We did what we could feeding the kids,” Rodriguez said later. “We came together.”
Two days before the fire, he had spent a month’s worth of food stamps stocking up. Now it would all go to waste, he said. The loss of so much food had brought him to tears, he acknowledged, likening the gas disaster to a zombie movie in which he and his neighbors were involuntary — and doomed — cast members.
“That is how we looked,” he said as his anger with the gas company rose. “They did a mistake and it cost a kid’s life.”
On Saturday morning, the sisters walked about a mile north over the Merrimack River to the city’s senior center, which had been turned into a shelter. Rodriguez was in search of formula and diapers for her 8-month old granddaughter, batteries and other small household items. “No candles, that’s for sure,” she said, managing a wry smile.
Rodriguez had barely slept the night of the explosions, and her fears were still fresh.
She recalled how when the police came yelling at people to evacuate, many neighbors had no idea what was happening, because they could not understand the commands emergency personnel shouted.
The power was turned back on Sunday morning at 7, but gas service might be out far longer. Local residents were told it could be weeks without hot showers or home-cooked meals. It remained unclear whether home heating systems could be restored by the time fall frosts set in here — as soon as next month.
But the emotional suffering is unlikely to end when the utilities are repaired.
Andrea Santana, a Lawrence resident since 1978, worries about her 16-year-old granddaughter, who was close friends with Rondon. They both attended the Phoenix Academy, a charter school in one of the renovated mill buildings in downtown Lawrence designed to give “rigorous academics and relentless supports” to promising students who face challenges.
About one-third of the students are former truants, 20 percent struggle to speak English and 10 percent are pregnant or parents, according to the school’s website.
“She is okay, but she is crying all the time,” Santana said Monday. “She is remembering him. They were so close.”
The school’s name alludes to a mythical bird that rises from the ashes. Some in Lawrence wonder how quickly their city can do the same.
Weintraub is a freelance journalist based in Massachusetts and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.