On the afternoon of Sept. 13, Franco Lozano was gearing up for the busy dinner rush as his Mexican restaurant in Andover, Bueno Malo. It turned out to be a day he will never forget.
When Lozano turned on his fryers, something he’s done hundreds of times, he heard a hiss coming from one of them.
“I opened the front of the fryer. I noticed a little fire ball coming out of the pilot light, ” Lozano said, sitting in the middle of his 50-seat restaurant. “I reached in to shut it off and when I did that, it just it exploded in my face.”
Lozano’s security cameras caught the action from two different angles as the bright red fireball blast barely missed his face. He rushed out of the way and grabbed a fire extinguisher. His staff scrambled to turn the fryer down.
“We had no idea what was going on,” Lozano said. “I thought my fryer was malfunctioning.”
But his fryer didn't cause the problem. The fire in Lozano’s kitchen was one of hundreds in the Merrimack Valley after gas explosions rocked the area. About 15 minutes after Lozano dodged the flames, a town official ran into the restaurant and ordered everyone out of the building, located downtown on Main Street.
Bueno Malo was closed for seven weeks before reopening on Nov. 1, with natural gas flowing once again. It was one of more than 200 Andover businesses that the explosions disrupted.
Lozano is aware that thousands of people are still without heat and hot water in their homes right before Thanksgiving. The thought of so many people out of their homes caused Lozano to hold back tears.
“It’s a tough situation for many people,” Lozano said. “Many of our customers are coming here for warmth. It’s tough to see that.”
A spokesperson for Columbia Gas said crews are working around the clock to restore natural gas service. Since the company missed its original target date for doing so, Nov. 19, it is providing 20,000 holiday meals on Thanksgiving. Columbia Gas now hopes to to have all customers back on line before Christmas.
Getting back on track hasn’t been easy for Franco Lozano. He’s had to prove losses to both his insurance company and Columbia Gas, which has already covered a large portion of his losses, running into the tens of thousands of dollars.
The reopening of Bueno Malo is one step towards getting back to normal for Lozano, as well as for customers like Alissa Rakauskas of Andover, whose gas was restored after two months.
“It’s amazing all my co-workers and I are here right now. We used to come once a week,” Rakauskas said.
Even with her gas back on, Rakauskas said she still will not able to cook for Thanksgiving.
Lozano knows there are many like Rakauskas are still suffering. He said sometimes he looks at the surveillance video of the explosion in his kitchen and thinks about what more he could have lost.
“As I look back at the video, I can see how close my face came to the fire,” Lozano said. “It could have been much worse.”