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Thousands Of Massachusetts Residents Without Gas Service A Month After Explosions


Now to Massachusetts, where it has been a month since about 80 natural gas fires and explosions erupted across three communities north of Boston. The fires killed one person, injured dozens, displaced thousands. In a preliminary report yesterday, federal investigators faulted the utility for not taking proper safety measures to prevent the disaster. Now, as Craig LeMoult of member station WGBH reports, many families are back home, but things are definitely not back to normal.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: On September 13, Henry Schiebel was just starting to cook dinner in his South Lawrence home.

HENRY SCHIEBEL: And I turned on my gas stove, and it was making a hissing sound.

LEMOULT: He turned the stove off and on again, and a big flame shot up, so he went down to the basement.

SCHIEBEL: Yes, coming down these stairs here to shut off my gas meter.

LEMOULT: He heard his furnace and water heater were hissing, too.

SCHIEBEL: This here where you see it was starting to burn was glowing red. By me shutting off that gas, saved this house from going up.

LEMOULT: Many of his neighbors weren't as lucky. Dozens of houses around him went up in flames, and several blew up. Scheibel and his family spent a few nights in a shelter. They're back home now, but they're one of about 10,000 households that a month later still don't have gas for heat, hot water or cooking.

SCHIEBEL: This is the pots and pans that I'm using. We've got to fill these up with water. My wife fills up the crock pot with water to fill up the tub just a little bit so we can sponge bath.

LEMOULT: So far, the early fall here has been a mild one, but things can change quickly in New England.

SCHIEBEL: Next week, if you look at the temperature, it's going down to the 50s, and then to the 40s in a couple of weeks.

LEMOULT: And the utility says it could be another month before the gas is restored. Schiebel says the best bet to stay warm may be what's developing around the corner from his house. Trucks come and go, trailing in nearly 200 RVs and lining them up just feet from each other on a Lawrence baseball field. This is one of four trailer parks being set up in the three affected communities. Chris Besse of the State Emergency Management Agency unlocks one of them.

CHRIS BESSE: Now we're inside one of these travel trailers that's set up here. Beds, a pull-out couch, small kitchen area, dining table, bathroom and shower - you know, the things they may need they may not have in their home.

LEMOULT: The utility, Columbia Gas, has also booked over 3,000 hotel rooms and rented more than a hundred apartments for families to move into once it gets cold. They've also handed out space heaters, but the wiring in many homes here isn't good enough for that to be a safe option. The gas crisis has also affected hundreds of businesses in the region, like Shadi's Restaurant in North Andover.

SHADI ASMAR: These two fryolators are new. These were the two pieces of equipment that were actually damaged through the high pressure.

LEMOULT: The restaurant's owner, Shadi Asmar, says he had to shut down for three weeks. He and his employees have filed claims with the utility for their losses. Fortunately, they've got gas again, and the restaurant is back open.

ASMAR: You know, it's behind us now us now. But for thousands of other people and many hundreds of other businesses, it's still an ongoing thing. And still a lot of people don't know when it's coming back.

LEMOULT: Gas crews are all over the three communities, digging up roads and replacing old cast-iron pipes with new plastic ones that can handle a higher pressure of natural gas. But even as the gas starts getting restored, the whole thing has left many residents, including Henry Schiebel, feeling uneasy.

SCHIEBEL: To tell you the truth, I am scared to death. When they turn that gas on, I don't want to be in this neighborhood.

LEMOULT: It's a mixture of anticipation and anxiety that's being felt in many households here as people wait for the gas to come back. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Lawrence, Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "JYNWYTHEK YLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.