LAWRENCE — When the Merrimack Valley gas disaster occurred last September, Altagracia Baldera evacuated from her North Andover apartment to her sister's house in Lawrence.
The next day, her brother-in-law opened the door to go get coffee and Baldera's small dog Virgo dashed out of the home.
"We went right outside and we looked everywhere for him," Baldera said of Virgo. "He had never been to my sister's before."
When they couldn't find him they reported Virgo's disappearance to the Lawrence Animal Control Unit, put fliers up on poles around the city and blasted the dog's picture out on social media.
Virgo, a Pekingese-Shih Tzu mix, was included in a statewide list of missing dogs, too. But all of this was to no avail.
Then last Monday, more than a year after his disappearance, a group of boys found a small, shaggy dog on Newbury Street and reported it to the police.
Animal Control Officer Brian Miranda, who works evenings and nights, went to the location and scooped up Virgo.
"I just think it's amazing. It's such a happy story," said Animal Control Ellen Bistany, who helped get 14-year-old Virgo home this week.
The dog has a microchip which lists Baldera as his owner. Her contact number, however, was outdated.
Bistany did a little more digging on her own, cross-referencing with the MSPCA in Methuen who had another number for Baldera.
Tuesday, Baldera learned Virgo had been found and was at the police station.
"I think he definitely recognized her," Bistany said after the dog and his owner were re-united.
Baldera said she immediately gave Virgo a haircut and much-needed bath. He seemed to be looking around and a bit confused, she said, "but he is happy."
In addition to Virgo, Baldera has two other dogs — Nala and Bonita.
"I love dogs," she said. "Oh my God, it's just like losing a member of the family. And when you find them, it's indescribable."
Fires and explosions on Sept. 13, 2018 caused by an over-pressurized gas line forced the evacuations of thousands of residents in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.
Baldera, who lost gas service at her apartment, stayed with her sister and later in a travel trailer set up in a park by Columbia Gas until her service was restored.
Bistany and Baldera said they agree that someone must have taken Virgo and helped the dog over the past year. While he's in good shape for age 14, it's unlikely he could have lived on his own throughout last winter.
"He wasn't in the street for a year or he would not have survived," Baldera said.
She believes someone either recently let him go or he escaped.
Bistany said she's angry that someone found the dog but didn't report it to authorities as required by law.
Whoever found Virgo must have realized he was someone's pet and the owners would be missing him, she said.
She praised microchips for dogs, saying that the devices are a very successful tool to identify pets who go missing. Low-cost options for microchips are available at the MSPCA in Methuen.
Every day is not a happy one for an animal control officer, she said.
"This is such a happy story. To see someone's emotions when they get their dog back," Bistany said.
"For a change, it's just a nice, happy ending."
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.