LAWRENCE — It was a small crowd with a powerful message: People affected by the Sept. 13, 2018 Columbia Gas disaster continue to suffer.
"Children, when they hear a siren, are still terrified," Susan Almono of Lawrence told a six-person panel from the state Department of Public Utilities Wednesday evening. "During the explosions and fires a little girl was telling the birds to fly away to safety."
She added: "People are moving out of the city. They are still traumatized."
The state DPU was in Lawrence to gather testimony from residents affected by the blasts, fires and destruction of that day. One man was killed, 120 people were injured and more than 140 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
For days, people were evacuated from their homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover -- told it was too unsafe for them to return until the gas was turned off and cleared from all the pipes underground.
When they did return, they had no way to cook, clean, shower, do laundry or stay warm. Trailers were brought in. Portable showers were installed in city and town parks. Mostly, however, people were left to fend for themselves.
About 30 people showed up for the meeting Wednesday night and a dozen or so testified in heart-felt detail about the ongoing pain inflicted on them by a seemingly uncaring utility company.
"We have been let down by Columbia Gas," said Fernanda Lopez of Salem Street, a mental health counselor at Phoenix Academy, a school for troubled youth. "We are triggered by any smell or fire or a truck going by too fast. It's continuous trauma. There's not enough accountability. Please, ask them (Columbia Gas) to take care of our mental health."
After the meeting, the chairman of the DPU, Matt Nelson, said that while he couldn't go into details about the investigation, testimony he heard tonight would become part of the overall case against Columbia Gas.
"Anything we hear we are allowed to use as evidence," he said. "Everyone has their own experiences and their own stories."
Another hearing to gather more comments from victims of the disaster is scheduled for Feb. 10 at the Collins Center in Andover, also at 6 p.m. The two public hearings are part of a larger investigation that could lead to multi-million dollar fines and other penalties.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera reiterated a demand he has made before -- that the company should be disbanded.
"The recovery will take years," he said, as people continue to have nightmares about "darkness, cold nights and cold showers. ... You should take their privilege to run a gas company away. Break them up. A life was lost. Houses no longer exist. Columbia Gas should no longer exist as well."
Other officials who spoke included state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, a representative from Sen. Edward Markey's office, Lawrence City Councilor Marc Laplante and a representative of the state Attorney General's office.
Laplante spoke of the lingering impact of the disaster.
"This has been an emotional drain on the whole area," he said, noting that people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
"Not everybody is back in their homes," he said. "It's been a long time." He spoke about how one resident has had problems with contractors and insurance companies, among other issues.
"He's still working as hard as he can to get his family back into their home," he said.
Rich Renzi of 135 Haverhill St., Andover, told a horror story about how difficult it was to work with a dysfunctional Columbia Gas and all of its contractors and subcontractors, none of whom seemed to know what the other was doing.
It started with him and his family getting evacuated the day of the explosion, followed by days without heat or hot water.
A contractor came and removed gaskets from the furnace, telling him it would be checked for asbestos before a new furnace was installed.
A few days later, a contractor came to remove the old furnace, but the workers didn't have any tools.
"They asked if I had tools," he said, noting that he also asked if his system had tested positive for asbestos.
He said he was told not to worry about it. Everything would be fine.
Renzi said a crew came back, with tools this time, and dismantled his boiler, taking it apart in pieces and hauling it away. Then they swept up the mess in the basement with brooms.
"I asked again if it had asbestos," he said, and was told that if he really wanted to know, he'd have to have it tested himself.
After a company tested the gasket he said, "they came back and said it did have asbestos. Now my basement was contaminated."
The air in his home was tested. It came back positive for asbestos. All the items in his basement were bagged and placed in a special container outside the home.
A special cleaning crew was hired to clean the basement and rid the home of the cancer-causing fibers.
When he put in a claim for the items he lost to asbestos contamination, he was told it had to be on an Excel spreadsheet.
Eventually, he was reimbursed $25,000 for the items lost in the basement, but was never paid for the hundreds of hours it took for him to compile information, do calculations, put everything on a spreadsheet, fill out forms, make multiple phone calls, and go through the bags of contaminated contents from the basement.
"I asked, 'Why should I work for Columbia Gas for free?'" he testified. He still hasn't been paid for the work he did to get reimbursed.
"This is how Columbia Gas treats its customers," Renzi said. "This was not a chance accident. It was the result of multiple failures. Apply your full legal authority and make sure everyone is made whole again."