LAWRENCE - The remaining residents evacuated from their homes after a gas leak in South Lawrence early Friday morning were allowed to return home on Saturday, as Columbia Gas was going door-to-door restoring service.

Noting “substantial progress” was made since the early-morning incident Friday, Columbia Gas president Mark Kempic encouraged the residents and business people to return to their homes and properties immediately so their gas service could be re-lit.

“We do appreciate your patience as we work through this,” said Kempic, at a press conference on South Broadway early Saturday afternoon.

The majority of residents evacuated after the 3:15 a.m. gas leak were allowed to return home at 3 p.m. Friday.

However, residents of the South Broadway and Carver street area were evacuated overnight Friday, some staying in hotels. Mayor Daniel Rivera said 31 families from those areas, which included 85 adults and six kids, needed overnight shelter.

A stretch of South Broadway, including the Falls Bridge and a short distance beyond, remained closed to traffic on Saturday. Officials said they hoped to reopen the area, possibly on Sunday.

“We hope to have at least one lane access by (Sunday) morning,” said Mayor Daniel Rivera.

Mental health triggers

While things appear to be getting back to normal, local politicians said they were hearing from stressed and displeased residents and businesspeople whose lives were disrupted by another gas leak.

On Sept. 13, 2018, the Merrimack Valley towns of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence were crippled by a gas disaster that triggered explosions and fires, killed a teen, damaged dozens of homes and resulted in $1 billion in damage.

Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover), commenting on the billion dollar price tag, said “it doesn’t seem like that has done the trick.”

“When it comes to gas lines, it’s like airports. You just can’t miss,” Finegold said on Saturday.

Mental health remains an issue locally. Counseling was available Saturday morning at the Wetherbee School, a short distance away from where the gas leak occurred.

Lawrence City Councilor Marc Laplante said he knows “many people are dealing with health issues and the gas disaster both last year and (on Friday) have impacted them.”

“People have told me the sirens from first responders and helicopters from news crews hovering over the city made them relive the scary moments of last year. I wish there was an easy solution to provide them the relief they need, but the first step may start with some sort of counseling and professional assistance,” said Laplante, who represents District F.

Discussions are currently underway with the mayor’s health task force to provide mental health counseling and assistance to residents, he said.

“What I have learned about mental health is that while we may believe we are OK - there are triggering events such as the recent gas leak that make us vulnerable. I don’t have all the answers but I know people are hurting,” Laplante said.

‘Do not hesitate to call’

At 3:15 a.m. Friday, a police officer working a detail on South Broadway heard the hiss of natural gas and saw smoke shooting into the air. It was the beginning of a major gas leak that would force South Lawrence residents out of their homes and into early morning darkness Friday.

City, state and Columbia Gas officials said later Friday that a water contractor working in the area inadvertently turned off a gas valve, and punctured a gas main, leading to the leak. No fires or explosions occurred, however.

Officials said the valve was left behind when Columbia Gas replaced old pipes with a new high pressure line after the Merrimack Valley gas disaster on Sept. 13, 2018.

“It is clear to me this gas valve never should have been there,” Rivera said.

The state’s Department of Public Utilities on Friday ordered Columbia Gas to inspect 45 gas valves in the effected area. Two valves were safely removed, a DPU official said Saturday.

Similarly to action taken in last year’s disaster, gas service and electricity was shut down to homes while emergency evacuations were underway on Friday morning.

Hundreds of people were forced to leave their homes, many in their pajamas and only able to grab a purse or wallet, and headed to the north side of the city.

There, the Arlington School was set up as a shelter, with Red Cross, Salvation Army and other staffers and volunteers helping hundreds of people in need.

Columbia Gas said 150 homes and businesses were affected Friday. Gas customers were expected to have their services restored by 10 p.m. Saturday, said Scott Ferson, Columbia Gas spokesperson.

“The leak was an isolated incident in the street. There was no impact on customer homes or to natural gas appliances which will work normally once gas service is restored,” Ferson said.

Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty described residents being allowed to return to their homes as “awesome.”

However, he cautioned that if anyone smells gas or has any other kind of emergency, to dial 911.

“Do not hesitate to call. The police and firefighters are here to help you,” Moriarty said.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.

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