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With Temperatures Dropping, Mass. Residents Still Lack Heat Weeks After Gas Fires


It's been more than a month since natural gas fires and explosions erupted across three communities just north of Boston. Thousands of homes there still don't have heat. And, now, things are starting to get chilly in New England. Craig LeMoult of member station WGBH has the story of families there bracing for colder temperatures.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: On that September evening, Kelsey Grondin and Tim Curtis noticed the smell of natural gas in their Lawrence apartment.

KELSEY GRONDIN: And then, we actually felt the explosion from the house, I believe, on Jefferson Street.

LEMOULT: About 80 homes in the three neighboring communities, Lawrence and over in North Andover were on fire. Several houses blew up, including one explosion that killed a teenager.

TIM CURTIS: I mean, it was scary.

LEMOULT: Thousands of homes were evacuated, including theirs, and they stayed with family for a few days. But they're back home now with their 1 1/2-year-old, Ricky, who toddles around holding a rubber ducky.

RICKY: Quack, quack.

LEMOULT: Grondin worked at a pizza shop down the street but is out of work because it's been closed since the natural gas was shut off more than a month ago. And they don't have any heat at home.

GRONDIN: It's been cold in here. I mean, we're in a, you know, basement apartment. So, naturally, the concrete is going to be cold just with that alone.


LEMOULT: A small space heater sits in the middle of the floor. Ricky keeps toddling towards it.

GRONDIN: That's hot. Don't touch it. Thank you.

LEMOULT: Since the incident, the utility, Columbia Gas, has been working to replace 44 miles of old pipeline. They're also busy replacing thousands of damaged furnaces, water heaters and home appliances. And they say they're on track to meet their target of restoring all service by November 19. Curtis doesn't trust that'll happen and says he just doesn't know when they'll have heat.

CURTIS: No idea. I don't even know how this happened, you know?

LEMOULT: That's under investigation. A preliminary report faulted Columbia Gas for not taking proper safety measures to prevent the disaster. As it gets colder, the utility is putting people up in temporary housing, and Grondin says she's been trying to get one of those spots. They told her the family could have a hotel room in Nashua, N.H., about 20 miles away.

GRONDIN: And I said, well, unfortunately, that's not going to work. We don't have a vehicle.

LEMOULT: And her stepfather, who also lives with them, is getting cancer treatments nearby and can't be that far away. Andrew Maylor, the town manager of North Andover, says a lot of people would rather stay home.

ANDREW MAYLOR: But I think as it becomes multiple days - over the next week or so, we're steadily in the 30s in the evening. That's not something that can be sustained in a safe way.

LEMOULT: Especially since there's a real concern that some space heaters might start fires. Columbia Gas spokesman Dean Lieberman says they've taken in more than 21,000 claims from customers for everything from damaged appliances to lost wages. And they've placed more than 1,800 families in hotels or RVs.

DEAN LIEBERMAN: We understand the frustration. We understand the inconvenience, but we are doing everything we possibly can to reduce the inconvenience to our customers and to give them the ability to stay warm.

LEMOULT: Ana Javier works with the social services agency Lawrence Methuen Community Coalition and says she's seen a lot of stressed-out people.

ANA JAVIER: I see a lot of people that are struggling with anxiety, depression. And I really feel, at this point, a lot of people are going to need a lot of counseling in our area.

LEMOULT: For Grondin, the main source of stress right now is getting her family into some place warmer.

GRONDIN: Like, I know we don't really have any room to be picky because there's so many thousands of people that were affected. But, hopefully, I can get through somebody today and figure it out.

LEMOULT: With the nights getting colder, she's hoping it happens quickly.

For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Lawrence, Mass. 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.