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Community Comes Together A Day After The Columbia Gas Explosion

Fires, Explosions Rock Lawrence, North Andover and Andover
Andover residents Zahiya and Owais Hassan evacuated their home at 5 p.m. on Thursday soon after the first reports of explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley. The couple spent the night at the Andover Senior Center where pets weren't allowed so their dog Simba slept in the car.
Meredith Nierman

Since Thursday evening, the Andover Senior Center and the nearby Youth Center have been transformed into dual emergency shelter for residents displaced after a series of gas explosions and subsequent fires rocked the area.

On the lawn outside the center, a local food truck is churning out free pizza as volunteers head inside carrying crates of bottled water and toilet paper. A collection of center staff, city officials, local police, Red Cross volunteers, and residents displaced from their homes are chatting away. The scene is calm, well-organized and spirits seem remarkably high.

“Just unbelievable,” said Andover resident Karen Anne Glennon. “I’ve never seen such coordination in the town. Just fantastic.”

Glennon arrived last night and suspects she’ll be here at least one more night. She’s been spending her time reflecting, and feeling grateful.

“You think about all these other people who are also going through difficult times and it’s not just us,” she said. “The people in Puerto Rico … people in California with the fires, people down in the south with the hurricanes. Maybe now you can have a better appreciation of the things we take for granted.”

Andover selectman Paul Salafia has been here all day, helping coordinate efforts. He says the centers are well-staffed, well-stocked, and still have plenty of space.

“We’re getting food donations by the ton which is wonderful,” he said, “I just spoke to the rotary club of Andover and their coming back with 150 toothbrushes and toothpaste and baby wipes and batteries.”

Salafia estimates some 125 residents spent the night at the senior center — and another 200 on cots in the nearby youth center.

While the worst of the crisis may be over, it will be some time yet before things get back to normal here in Andover. Electricity remains out for safety reasons in areas throughout the town, just as it was last night. Despite this, resident Al Arcand said he remained in his apartment.

“It was total darkness,” he said, “Last night you went outside you couldn’t see five feet in front of you, anywhere. It was like, we’re so used to street lights at night. There was nothing.”

Arcand, who may spend the night at the shelter or go stay with his girlfriend north of the city, says he stopped by the shelter after a trip to the store to stock up on batteries.

“I lost everything in the refrigerator so I came here to get a little lunch,” he explained. “I’m just a little bit worried about my medicine in the fridge but they told me it’s good ... for a little while.”

Whether electricity will be back in a little while remains an open question. As of early Friday evening, about half of the town’s streets have yet to be deemed safe for residents to return home.

“That’s really the question,” said Selectman Salafia, “So, we’re kind of gearing up [at the shelters] at least through an overnight. I think we’re probably gonna be here another night.”

Salafia says that residents in affected areas should not return home until their street is officially deemed safe. And that there are plenty of supplies — and space — here at the two shelters. Andover residents should keep an eye on the city’s website, andoverma.gov, where updates are being provided in real time. Residents who do return home should not turn their gas lines back on but instead call Columbia Gas.

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