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Gas disaster forever seared into memories - Events of Sept. 13, 2018, set off long road to recovery

by Bill Kirk, Eagle Tribune

Everyone, it seems, remembers where they were that day.

Sept. 13, 2018, delivered a typical late summer, early fall kind of afternoon. At around 4:20 p.m., some people were still at work. Others were on their way to a child’s sporting event. Others were in their cars, headed home.

Their sense of normalcy would soon be shattered.

At about 4 p.m., a subcontractor for Columbia Gas was working to replace old, cast-iron gas lines with new plastic pipes. He had just switched service from a length of old pipe to one of the new ones under the intersection of South Union and Salem streets in South Lawrence.

However, sensors used to measure pressure in the lines were on the old piece of pipe. Those sensors, attached to monitoring stations, began to show that there was very little pressure in the old pipe. The system responded by pumping more gas.

At 4:04 p.m. and then at 4:05 p.m., alarms sounded in a Columbia Gas monitoring center in Columbus, Ohio, warning that there was too much gas being pumped into the distribution system in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.

At 4:11 p.m., the first 911 call came into Lawrence dispatchers that a house was on fire.

Over the next 19 minutes, the pressure mounted, forcing more and more natural gas into the system and ultimately into homes and businesses.

Furnaces, stoves and any other gas appliance with a pilot light became a potential flame thrower, pushing columns of fire into basements, kitchens, and laundry rooms across the region, igniting dozens of fires and in some cases resulting in catastrophic explosions.

As the gas silently made its way through the pipes, at first hissing and then igniting into balls of fire, the calm of a peaceful New England afternoon was turned into a cauldron of panic and terror the likes of which few had seen before.


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