One Year After the Columbia Gas Disaster ~ VALLEY PATRIOT EDITORIAL (9-19)

September, 2019

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Columbia Gas explosions that rocked Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

For those who lived through it, it will be something we will never forget.
Homes and businesses blew up, caught fire and the magnitude of the disaster eventually resulted in the evacuation of all of South Lawrence – a full 50% of the city.

For sure, the initial response from Columbia Gas was pathetically inadequate. But, the police, firefighters, EMTs and thousands of first responders from all over New England were nothing short of heroic, especially our own Lawrence Police and Fire.

We stood there as cops and firefighters ran into exploding buildings, emerging with victims, and then turning around and going BACK IN to find more survivors.

We heard the harrowing calls on the fire scanner as overwhelmed firefighters called “Firefighter down, firefighter down!”

One hero Lawrence Firefighter Mike Maglio fell thought the floor of a burning building from the third floor down to the second, and then through the second floor down to the first floor. He then brushed himself off and continued fighting the fire from where he landed.

We could write a book about the incredible heroism of our first responders and the average people who sprang to action that day – in fact we just might.

But it wasn’t all heroism during the disaster. There was a severe lack of leadership for sure when Mayor Dan Rivera refused to allow public safety officials to publicly speak about what was going on. People were panicked, worried about loved ones, and trying to find any information they could get to understand what was happening. Yet, Rivera played politics and told his chiefs and other first responders NOT to speak to the press and NOT to calm the public with accurate information. It wasn’t until late the first night of this when Rivera set up an official press conference with all the Boston and National television cameras where he could grandstand and control every word that was uttered by “his” public safety officials.

It was shameful. But, more shameful was the absence of Columbia Gas.
There was no sign of them.

When the head of Columbia Gas finally spoke to the press at the command center, he really had nothing to say. He had no answers for the displaced families. He had no explanation as to how this really happened. He had no words of comfort for the men and women of the police and fire departments who were dealing with the disaster that Columbia Gas caused. He had no plan of action as to how to deal with the aftermath. The people of the Merrimack Valley got NOTHING from him.

For months, nothing changed. The slow and seemingly feckless response to the victims of this disaster was a $100 gift card and a free heater, with a promise to make everyone whole later on.

For his part, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera got better. No, he didn’t allow anyone else a spotlight unless he approved everything personally, but he did open communications with his office, held frequent press conferences, and took control of the aftermath, even periodically giving someone else the spotlight.

Columbia Gas also got better, though not much better. They worked around the clock to restore service, and did home repairs, but much of the work they did to people’s homes was shoddy at best. In fairness, many victims swear that Columbia Gas treated them well. Others, however, are still not made whole.
Now, a year later, Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover continue to repair roads and parks. Area fire departments are still taking daily calls for gas leaks, odor of gas, or broken gas pipes.

Yes, Columbia Gas has made monumental efforts to rectify the situation. But, to this day it has not been enough. After what they did, Columbia Gas should have given free gas services for the next ten years to every person affected by their outright incompetence.

They still can.

After all, if someone as hard-headed and egotistical as Dan Rivera can step up to the plate and give someone else a spotlight once in a while, and adequately manage the chaos of this monumental disaster, surely a multi-BILLION dollar corporation like Columbia Gas can pony up free service to those who were victimized by this disaster.

But, we’re not holding our breath. ◊