LAWRENCE — Sometimes, when talking about the aftermath of the Sept. 13 natural gas disaster, Mayor Dan Rivera sounds like a plastic surgeon.

Before an enthusiastic crowd of young athletes and youth workers, Wednesday afternoon Rivera spoke about how the work continues to heal the wounds inflicted by the explosions, fires and horror caused by the over-pressurization of gas lines in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover last fall.

"The memories of the gas explosions are slowly moving away as we fix the scars left behind," Rivera said, during a press conference and ceremonial reopening of the Sullivan Park basketball and tennis courts, located just off Route 114 near Lawrence High School.

Places like Sullivan Park, which was ripped apart to make way for temporary trailer-homes used by residents displaced by the disaster, are slowly being restored to their former — and sometimes better — glory.

The six tennis courts and two basketball courts still have that shiny, new-courts look, complete with bright, white nets and fresh, blue-and-green paint jobs.

During Tuesday's event,  Lawrence High School senior Cristian Moscat, 17, climbed a step ladder under the new, clear-plastic backboard at the end of one of the basketball courts and unfurled the net, to applause from the crowd of about 100 people, including town officials, students and youth workers.

Among the happiest in the crowd were former and current members of the high school tennis team, who, before the gas explosions, had played on outdated, cracked courts. But, at least they were playable. In the fall and winter, Columbia Gas crews came in, pulled out the fence, including the posts, leaving gaping holes in the pavement.

"They destroyed the courts," said boys' tennis team coach Eric Allshouse.

The courts' destruction meant the team had no home matches, going from one "away meet" to another. They practiced at the South Lawrence East Middle School courts, which don't have nets. Sometimes, they practiced at the one functioning court left in the city, at Riverside Park.

Allshouse and the players agreed that in the end, they made out pretty well.

"Now they're better than any other courts in the league," said Jameson Ho, 16, a junior. "These are brand-new."

Allshouse agreed.

"To be honest, we got better courts, so this was sort of a blessing," he said.

Rivera said the cost of renovating both Sullivan and South Common parks came in at around $2.8 million, including $1.37 million for Sullivan Park. 

"Last December, when there was snow on the ground and RVs parked in this park and at South Common, we put out to bid the work to get the courts and fields rebuilt and back up and running as soon as possible," he said. "We didn't know how much it was going to cost. We didn't know we'd go a whole season without these courts. It was just more hardship for the kids. But today, these courts are available for the kids."

He noted that the grass at the South Common park wouldn't be ready until next spring, giving it a chance to fully take root.

Rivera, answering a question from a TV reporter, said it "feels great" to have gotten the work done.

"To have had this happen and the kids and the community to see it in the condition it was in was depressing," he said. "If we had waited to get money from Columbia Gas, it still wouldn't be done."

Rivera said the money to pay for the courts and the South Common fields came from the $81 million Columbia Gas paid the city for infrastructure work, including parks and playgrounds affected by the gas explosions as well as roads and sidewalks.

He noted how some people in the city still suffered from "PTSD," and that while the visible scars would heal, it would take longer for the emotional toll to subside.

Jeremy Rizzo, 16, a member of the Green Team working this summer on local projects for Groundwork Lawrence, said the "gas explosions took us by shock. To be able to see this feels good."

Co-worker Jack Brady, 18, agreed.

"It's wonderful to see it this way," he said. "Seeing it in the winter, with the trailers, there was just a lot of desperation. I'm happy to see it rebuilt, being used and bringing the community together."

 

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