By Bill Kirk
---- — LAWRENCE — Technicians are painstakingly splicing thousands of individual copper and fiber-optic wires under the Central Bridge, slowly restoring TV, Internet and phone service to thousands of customers throughout the Merrimack Valley and Eastern Massachusetts.
Allison Cole, Verizon president of operations in New England, said crews are working around the clock under the bridge, where a homeless man set fire to a mattress just after midnight Monday. The mattress in turn ignited the cable that carries one of the company's primary communications conduits for the region.
Some Verizon customers in Andover, Lawrence, Littleton, Methuen, North Andover, North Reading and Tewksbury have lost some Verizon services as a result of the fire, she said. Also, voice and data services for some business and government customers may be affected. Customers in other communities may be impacted as well.
"Verizon crews worked through the night and made very good progress on restoring service for our customers," said Cole. "We have already restored critical network operational and surveillance circuits, high-capacity fiber backbone circuits, and worked with state and local officials to ensure that all 911 services are fully operational in the area."
According to North Andover police and fire officials, however, the 911 service is not functioning as it should.
Anybody who calls 911 from a cell phone in North Andover will get the State Police barracks in Andover. The barracks is then communicating with North Andover via cell phone or radio.
Anyone else with an emergency is getting patched through to the Andover Public Safety dispatch center, where dispatchers are also communicating with North Andover police and fire via radio or cell phone, according to Police Chief Paul Gallagher.
"Verizon is keeping us updated," Gallagher said. Their last update, earlier today, was that they are "still working on it."
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency airlifted 20 emergency radios to North Andover, landing a helicopter at Osgood Landing and then delivering the radios to the Police Department across the street.
Gallagher said that as of earlier today, police and fire personnel were still working on trying to get them to function.
He said police officers are using their own cell phones to communicate with each other and with supervisors in the police station. He said he called in extra police officers yesterday while detectives put on uniforms and went to area banks and other businesses to discuss the problems they were having with their alarm systems.
Fire Chief Andrew Melnikas noted, "We're vulnerable. Everybody's vulnerable."
He added, "Knock on wood Verizon gets it fixed quickly and we don't have anything serious."
He said the radios on the fire trucks don't work the way they are supposed to, because so-called "repeater-towers" set up throughout town have been disengaged because they are connected by Verizon wires. The only time the radios work is when they are within "line-of-sight," according to Lt. John Weir of the North Andover Fire Department.
While the outage seems to be focused on the Merrimack Valley, many other communities were affected. Melnikas said 41 communities suffered some outages, while 20 experienced problems with their 911 systems.
People from across the region have been communicating with The Eagle-Tribune about the outage. In addition to people in North Andover and Lawrence, people from Merrimac and Haverhill have also reported problems. Groveland may also be suffering from a problem with its 911 system.
"I have no Internet and long-distance calls cannot be made," Marjorie Proulx of Haverhill said in an email to The Eagle-Tribune. "Incoming calls are not an issue. I called Verizon before 9 a.m. was told to try back in 24 hours. I need the connection for work. The representative said she will phone me when it is up."
Ed Starr, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical 2321, said there have been five or six crews working around the clock to get service back up. Each crew has four or five workers.
“It has been all hands on deck,” Starr said. “Anybody that is qualified has been asked to work. There are more than enough workers.”
He said there are thousands of pieces of fiber running through the bridge and each of those fibers have to be identified to each individual customers. The color codes for each fiber have been burnt off in the fire making the work even more difficult.
“You are left there with basically pieces of spaghetti (that need to be identified and reattached),” he said.
Starr said he is impressed with the progress the workers have made so far, given the complexity of the repairs.
“I am surprised this morning about how much they got done,” Starr said.
The workers still don't know how long it will take for the damage to be completely repaired, Starr said.
Reporter Jon Phelps contributed to this story.