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'Still terrified' DPU hears horror stories from Columbia Gas disaster

by Bill Kirk, Eagle Tribune

"Children, when they hear a siren, are still terrified," Susan Almono of Lawrence told a five-member panel from the state Department of Public Utilities Wednesday evening. "During the explosions and fires a little girl was telling the birds to fly away to safety."

She added: "People are moving out of the city. They are still traumatized."

The state DPU was in Lawrence to gather testimony from residents affected by the blasts, fires and destruction of that day. One man was killed, 120 people were injured and more than 140 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

For days, people were evacuated from their homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover -- told it was too unsafe for them to return until the gas was turned off and cleared from all the pipes underground.

When they did return, they had no way to cook, clean, shower, do laundry or stay warm. Trailers were brought in. Portable showers were installed in city and town parks. Mostly, however, people were left to fend for themselves.

About 30 people showed up for the meeting Wednesday night and a dozen or so testified in heart-felt detail about the ongoing pain inflicted on them by a seemingly uncaring utility company.

"We have been let down by Columbia Gas," said Fernanda Lopez of Salem Street, a mental health counselor at Phoenix Academy, a school for troubled youth. "We are triggered by any smell or fire or a truck going by too fast. It's continuous trauma. There's not enough accountability. Please, ask them (Columbia Gas) to take care of our mental health."

After the meeting, the chairman of the DPU, Matt Nelson, said that while he couldn't go into details about the investigation, testimony he heard tonight would become part of the overall case against Columbia Gas.

"Anything we hear we are allowed to use as evidence," he said. "Everyone has their own experiences and their own stories."


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