LAWRENCE — Hundreds of people spent hours waiting in line in the parking lot behind St. Patrick Church at 118 S. Broadway Monday, filing claims for lost food, wages, profit and inventory due to last week’s gas main break that forced the evacuation of dozens of homes and businesses for more than two days.

Meanwhile, in front of St. Patrick, dozens of employees of Columbia Gas were monitoring the air above and below the ground, using “sniffer” devices while high-pressure air hoses were being used to vent any natural gas from pipes under the streets and sidewalks.

The activity was the result of a gas main leak that was first noticed about 3:12 a.m. Friday morning. A water contractor working for the city mistook a gas valve for a water valve. When they went to turn it off, the valve broke the pipe in the ground, releasing extremely high pressure gas into the air.

Dozens of nearby residents were evacuated and businesses and nearby schools were shut Friday and much of Saturday. Most people were back in their homes by Sunday.

Much like the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster, last week’s gas main break forced many people to miss work. And because the power was shut off, refrigerated or frozen food may have spoiled. In addition, businesses in the area lost revenue and many workers lost wages. 

Claims center

On Monday afternoon, hundreds of local residents stood in line, waiting to see Columbia Gas claims workers, sitting at tables under temporary tents set up in the parking lot. It was a scene eerily familiar to those who had been through a similar claims process last year following the gas disaster that affected thousands of residents and businesses in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

This gas disaster happened on a much smaller scale, affecting hundreds of people in a fairly confined area of Lawrence along South Broadway and side streets.

Nonetheless, it was an exhausting day for Roberta Sedgwick of 21 Front St., who arrived at the claims center around noon and was still waiting there by 3:45 p.m., without having filed her claim.

“We lost things in the fridge,” she said. “We went through this last year. It’s been a long day. Everybody’s feet are numb.”

She explained that there were two lines — one for registering and a second line for actually filing a claim. She’d spent most of the day in the second line that snaked around the parking lot, about 50 or 60 people deep at one point.

“The lines were faster last year,” she said, adding that she’d like to be able to put in a claim for the aggravation and mental anguish caused by the gas problems in the city.

“My son has special needs,” she said. “He’s having a hard time functioning. He was very confused and upset” when firefighters came knocking at their door early Friday morning.

‘Moving to Lowell’

Mary Ruiz of 254 Salem St. is equally frustrated, to the point, she said, that she’s looking for a new apartment in Lowell.

She said she had just lost electricity when she heard firefighters pounding on her door about 4 a.m. Friday morning.

She, her boyfriend, and three sons — ages 6, 8 and 10 — were told to immediately evacuate the building and go to the Walgreen’s parking lot at 135 So. Broadway, or, if they had a car, to drive to the city-run shelter at the Arlington School.

“We went to the Arlington School and were just sitting there waiting for an update,” she said. “They brought us breakfast.”

When an update on when they could return to their homes never came, they just left because her son, who has attention deficit disorder and autism, needed his medication.

“We took off and went to a friend’s house,” she said, noting that due to the incident, she missed a full day of work, or about $200. She said she would also put in for lost food and any other expenses she incurred that could be reimbursed.

“I’m definitely considering moving out of town,” she said. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I’m looking for something in Lowell.”

Columbia Gas spokesman Scott Ferson said the claims center behind the church was scheduled to close at 5 p.m. Monday, after which it was going to be moved to the Fidelity House at 439 So. Union St. That claims center is expected to be open until 8 p.m. Monday.

The claims center will continue to operate at 439 So. Union St. from Tuesday Oct. 1 through Saturday, and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Next week, the center will be open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at South Union Street.

He said he couldn’t estimate how long it would take Columbia Gas to pay claims.

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