‘A lifetime, every day’: As cold weather sets in, a South Lawrence family without gas reflects on life since the Merrimack Valley crisis

Thousands of residents affected by September's gas crisis are still without heat as the fall moves into its colder days.

South Lawrence resident Luis Rodriguez, 48, stands outside his Salem Street home looking over gas lines that feed into the building.
South Lawrence resident Luis Rodriguez, 48, stands outside his Salem Street home looking over gas lines that feed into the building. –Christopher Gavin/Boston.com staff

Within a mere week and a half, a new daily routine for Luis Rodriguez has become rather usual.

Every morning he wakes up at the Courtyard Marriott hotel in Andover before he puts on his clothes and makes the trip over to the Salem Street home where he lives with his daughter, mother, and her husband in South Lawrence.

There, they wait for any updates they can get regarding the return of their gas service in their journey back to normalcy since Sept. 13, when over-pressurized Columbia Gas pipelines fueled explosions and rocked their neighborhood and the Merrimack Valley.

The cycle of hotel to house and back again is tiring, Rodriguez said, but it’s a dramatic shift from the month and a half his family spent in a home without heat and hot water as autumn settled into New England.

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The entire experience has tested his family.

“It brought good anger, good humor,” Rodriguez, 48, told Boston.com last Thursday as he stood on his front porch. “It comes with the territory when you’re going through this.”

His family was among thousands of residents still waiting to have gas service restored in the coming weeks as work crews crisscross the community assessing buildings and making repairs. An initial deadline of Nov. 19 to have service brought back to all customers was announced in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, but officials indicated late last month that the schedule had been pushed back another month.

Rodriguez expected service to return to his home in two weeks, but the more recent news left him with some doubts, he said.

“That hurt,” he said.

“I saved this house.”

Luis Rodriguez. —Christopher Gavin/Boston.com staff

On the evening of the explosions, Rodriguez found his boiler inflamed.

He had heard an alarm going off while inside his upstairs bedroom.

Was it coming from his neighbor’s place? He learned quickly it was in his own basement.

With some fast thinking, he extinguished the blaze and shut off his gas line with a wrench — a decision he credits for saving the house — and went to check on neighbors.

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He could see buildings burning around the corner on Springfield Street. (Images of smoke billowing out of one’s upstairs windows would later become an iconic staple of the disaster in the nightly news coverage.)

He heard the emergency sirens and wondered whether what he saw was the aftermath of a possible terrorist attack. 

Rodriguez called his mother, Maria DeJesus, 70, who owns the house and was out with his daughter, Kassandra, 25, to tell them what was happening.

“She almost had a heart attack,” he said, as they sat inside their living room on a rainy morning.

“I was in shock,” said DeJesus.

Both she and her granddaughter became depressed soon after the gas fires, Rodriguez said.

“A lot of sadness on that day, just because of what happened,” he added.

“A lifetime, every day.”

Maria DeJesus, 70, and her husband, Jose Batista, 62, sit on a couch in their living room while DeJesus’s son, Luis Rodriguez, looks on. —Christopher Gavin/Boston.com staff

After the situation stabilized and the fires across town were put out, Rodriguez was among many left without electricity, which was cut across the grid as a precaution to quell the potential for fanning more flames.

His family had help from relatives, and, as soon as they received direction from Columbia Gas, they filed reports at a claims center on nearby Market Street.

They were given gift cards — $100 per person in the house — for food, gas, or anything else they lost, Rodriguez said, adding that the company had handled reimbursements very well for them.

They did us right on that so far,” he said.

But even after electricity was restored to their home, life was “very, very tough,” Rodriguez said.

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“We’ve been taking showers, just putting hot water inside the microwave and just putting it in a big bowl and going inside the bathtub and from there, you know, just take a cup and put it all over your head,” he said. “So that was tough, living in the days of the countryside.”

He bought four space heaters, now strategically placed throughout the house. He cooked rice, meats, and steamed vegetables in a rice cooker and on a hot plate supplied by the company, he said.

His family made do with what they had.

“Everything was coming out good, you know. Thank God I’m a good cook,” Rodriguez said with a laugh.

As October began, gas customers without service were offered options for alternative housing, including hundreds of heated and hot water-equipped trailers and apartments as well as thousands of nearby hotel rooms.

Rodriguez said his family tried to wait it out, but, once he received a phone call message giving the option to live at a hotel, the decision to leave was simple. As of last Thursday, the family had spent 11 days with a hotel room.

“Thank God we have help and we are in the hotel to sleep very well because yesterday was freezing when we got here,” DeJesus said.

“We can only stay for just a matter of time and then we have to leave,” Rodriguez added.

“A lifetime, every day, going back,” DeJesus said.

When temperatures aren’t too cold, the family spends the daytime at the house because they don’t want to miss out on any gas service employees who may show up at their door, Rodriguez said. He recalled last Wednesday, when workers came to red tag gas-fired appliances that needed to be replaced, and was thankful he was home.

It’s also a chance to cook in the kitchen — more ideal than in the hotel where he said he feels trapped.

Asphalt on Salem Street in South Lawrence with yellow paint lines indicating a gas line beneath the surface. The markings are familiar on streets around the city. —Christopher Gavin/Boston.com staff

The emergency in September arrived as Rodriguez and his family were renovating an upstairs apartment they rent out — a sizable portion of their income that they’ve lost for two months, he said. They were planning on offering it for $1,200 a month.

“We’re losing rent because we can’t really rent the place because of this, no gas. We can’t really show the place because there’s no gas,” he said.

He’s uncertain whether that loss could be reimbursed. It’s something he’s been talking over with the gas company, he said.

After Columbia Gas and restoration officials announced they had fallen behind the initial schedule to have service restored by mid-November, there’s now an emphasis on repairing boilers and furnaces for the winter to have residents back online between Dec. 2 and Dec. 16 at the latest.

A full replacement of heating equipment is expected to start next spring, officials have said.

Rodriguez said the company’s website once had Nov. 12 for his house’s gas restoration date, although the pushback of the overall deadline news concerned him.

As of last Friday afternoon, an interactive map on the gas company’s website indicated work crews would be at the house and nearby properties for partial restoration — with an inspection to repair or replace boilers and furnaces and installation of new hot water heaters — sometime between Nov. 17 and Dec. 7.

Afterward, full restoration could take between Dec. 7 and Dec. 9 as inspectors would have to conduct a final inspection and get the service back online.

Rodriguez also added that he was told they could stay in the hotel until Nov. 21, but was unsure what happens should their service still be offline at that time.

He worries about whether his pipes will freeze. Last Wednesday morning already brought a frost to Massachusetts.

“Right now, they are doing well with us,” Rodriguez said regarding how the gas company has handled the recovery effort for his family. “I’m still worried that I still don’t have my boilers fixed and stuff like that. That’s the only part that’s really killing me right now.”

In an email, Columbia Gas spokesman Dean Lieberman said the company will provide alternative housing to customers until their gas service is restored.

Residents without heat and hot water will not have to return home until they have those utilities again, he said.

“In some cases, if we are unable to extend the hotel room block, we may have to relocate a family to another alternative housing solution,” Lieberman said. “We are making every effort to extend hotel room blocks to minimize disruption. In most cases, we are able to extend hotel room blocks; when we are not able to, we will work to find alternative housing that fits their needs.”

Regarding any possible rent reimbursement, Lieberman said the company could not comment on specific claims cases, but added that each scenario is different.

“We follow a set of basic guidelines for customer claims yet we need to have flexibility in certain cases due to unique situations,” he said. “As we’ve said since the event occurred, we are committed to covering reasonable losses as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

“We don’t want to go through it again.”

A basketball hoop remained standing last Wednesday next to the debris of a Chickering Road home that exploded on Sept. 13 in Lawrence. The blast killed 18-year-old Leonel Rondon. —Christopher Gavin/Boston.com staff

As DeJesus, Rodriguez, and their family await the return of heat to their home, the prospect of gas flowing into their house again can be a bit nerve-wracking.

“Yes, I’m nervous about the gas; nervous about what could happen to my family together; and what happened, every day,” DeJesus said. “It’s unusual to live like that. That’s uncomfortable, you know, to live like that.”

A preliminary report from an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board released last month showed workers contracted by Columbia Gas did not move pressure sensors onto a new pipeline while swapping out pipes — an oversight that led to the emergency.

NiSource, Columbia Gas’s parent company, is also the focus of a federal, criminal investigation into the incident and has said it is cooperating with investigators.

“You’ve got that little bit of like, ‘Yeah I am afraid of it,’ because it’s just too much,” Rodriguez said when asked if he’s nervous about the gas coming back to his house. “If this happens again, we don’t know what’s going to go on, and we already went through it and we don’t want to go through it again.”

But, if there’s something he’s taken away from it all, it’s that his family learned to adapt to another way of living — that they came together in a time of crisis.

“We learned to appreciate what we had and not to get too used to it because you’ll never know when you won’t have it,” he said, standing near a patch of dirt in his front yard showing where new gas lines were recently installed. “So that’s a lesson learned for us.”

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