It's been one year since gas explosions rocked the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. Since then, most of the physical damage from the explosions has been repaired, but Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera says the psychological and emotional damage is still fresh, especially as Lawrence moves to honor 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who was killed as a result of the disaster. WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu sat down with Rivera to talk about how the city's recovery. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: The headline this morning is "one year after.” One year since the gas explosions and fires that changed your life and everyone's lives in Lawrence. That must have been the longest year of your life, getting to this point.

Mayor Dan Rivera: Yeah, we've been looking back on it, and the first five months felt like a year on on their own. And we're not really sure we ever felt like we would be on the other side of it. But from after those first five months to now, I feel like it flew by. It feels like it's been a sprint from then to now. But the first five were awful, because it was the incident, then the repair and the recovery, and dealing with all the trauma, disruption and the death of Leonel Rondon. And just feeling your way through the disaster.

Mathieu: We just launched a podcast called "Fire in the Valley," and it includes the sound of the dispatchers that night.

Rivera: I listened to [part one] and I put it down the middle of it, was just too emotionally charged for me.

Mathieu: It brings you back, doesn't it?

Rivera: Yeah. If you think about it, we didn't hear any of that stuff because we were on the ground just doing the thing. But the one that was most jarring to me was when the Andover dispatcher says to one of our dispatchers, "good luck." And it just kind of stops, like there's this quiet after it. And I just thought, yeah. No one knew what to do next.

Mathieu: Did you feel alone in that moment, or like help was on the way?

Rivera: I think it's one of the things you do, when there's a structure fire, a three-alarm, four-alarm fire. I always call dispatch, and I find out what's the status of things, where the chief is, how I can help or how I can stay out of the way. I learned that in the service, this idea [that] in the craziest moments, the thing to do is just do the things you have to do in the order you have to do them, and just keep your mind busy about it. And so I think that having called the dispatch, and having found the chief and the police chief, it just kept us busy enough that we couldn't get consumed by the magnitude of the disaster.

MORE: Listen to "Fire In The Valley," WGBH News' podcast on how the Merrimack Valley gas fire disaster unfolded, and how the people of the region recovered from it.

Mathieu: So plus 12 months, Mayor Rivera, you've replaced miles of pipeline, repaved miles of roads, got people back in their homes — many of whom were living in trailers a couple of months ago. You've helped to secure a massive settlement with Columbia Gas. Do you feel like you're back where you were?

Rivera: Not really. I think the final scars are some of the roads that need to be paved. [Those are] the last physical scars. And I think that [this] part is the psychological impact. I think there are businesses that are going out of business because of this, because people just didn't know how to get on the other side of it.

I think there [are] people's lives and families that were disrupted. People are moving, and they just don't know what to do with this feeling they have from that day. It's so foreign. Being a victim of a fire when I was a kid, this idea that your whole life gets torn apart and you have to go and move someplace. So I think people have that sense in their stomach and in their hearts and minds about what this did to them, and they're just not sure what to do. So I think that the psychological trauma is going to be with us for a while.

But the upbeat is that since that thing happened, kids have been born, and people have moved here that weren't part of it. Those kids are going to grow up in a place where it'll look like nothing happened. There'll be monuments and remembrances to this thing, we're going to make sure that. On Friday we're going to name the square across the street from where Leonel lived "Leonel Rondon Square." And we're going to make sure that people who live in and around where he lived — it's not gonna be where he lost his life, it's gonna be where he lived — continue to support and celebrate his life. So that's going to be there, but I think that it's going to be some time before we're all on the other side of it.

Mathieu: We’re sitting here in your office in view of a street sign with Leonel's name on it. What does that mean to you?

Rivera: Yeah. I mean, I think the family is going through a lot, and we want to make sure we support them. I remember the Bread and Roses strike, the Pemberton Mill fire and the people who built the Great Stone Dam. All of those things took lives and left a huge mark in Lawrence's life and culture. This thing did, too. And we want to make sure that we do that. It's right and proper to celebrate and remember that the life of Leonel, but also it is a sign of support to the family. They got a settlement with the attorneys and Columbia Gas, but they don't have their kid back. And we don't have their kid back. We want to make sure that all of that is not forgotten.

Mathieu: What will be going through your mind as you walk through the day remembering one year ago? Will you be busy attending events or in your thoughts, or somewhere in between?

Rivera: Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry. That's what it's going to be, because this thing happened to me too, and so I have to make remember that Dan Rivera needs time, but also that when I'm in front of other people that I have to give them the support, time and attention they need. I got stopped in the supermarket by this lady. She just went right into it she said, "You know, I was out of my house for six months, and I really appreciate the things you did and the community did." And we just hugged.

Mathieu: That’s the stuff that gets you, when you think back to those [moments].

Rivera: Yeah. And I had met her knocking on her door trying to get her vote. I hadn't seen her since then, so having that moment was good for her [and] it was good for me.

Mathieu: Did that make you feel like you are in a better place now, or did it pull you back [to] a year ago?

Rivera: No, I think it just reminded me how human this thing was. She's lived in Lawrence for, I don't know, 28 years. She had somebody who was disabled in her house. And these are the people that we're thinking about when we say we've got to shut the city down [and] we've got to get everybody out. We've got to shut the lights off. And you're thinking, there are people that don't have vehicles. There are people who are going to have a hard time getting from the third floor to the first floor because they have oxygen or they have extreme cases of diabetes — things that really make it hard for people to get around.

It was easy enough for Columbia Gas to say, 'This thing is so out of control, we have to evacuate the city.' Those words are easy to say, but to do that and to make sure people get out is really a difficult thing to do. Then to follow up [and] say we're going to shut off the lights too because we don't want there to be a gas fire because the electricity is running through the building. So all that stuff, you think about the people who you've met along the way who you know have a hard life as it is. When you get a chance to meet with those people, it just reminds you that it was worth fighting for them the whole time.

Mathieu: This is what it means to be a mayor though, right? This is what people might not understand when they think about politicians. Being a mayor specifically is about one-to-one communications. It's about talking directly with people.

Rivera: Yeah. I don't know if you ever saw that [World War II] movie about the tankers, "Best Job I've Ever Had." Right after they have the worst battle they ever had, they just said, "this was the best job I ever had. Best job I ever had." And I think it is, because I grew up here. So I know the needs of folks, and being able to help people on the way is one of the things that I think makes the job of mayor special. People may know the name of the president, and they may know the name of their congressman, but they sure know where to go find their mayor. So if stuff ain't right, they will find us and they will make sure that we make things right.

Mathieu: You have called your first-responders heroes and have tried to call attention to them over the last year, mayor. I know you had an event that was planned to commemorate their contributions — a first-responder commemoration that was canceled. Some of the firefighters who are unionized are without a contract [and] they were going picket. How are these coexisting? I know you've tried to be deliberate and delicate with this, and that it's a very complicated matter.

Rivera: Yeah. I think the union wanted to send a message and we got the message. As far as the contracts are concerned, we're gonna be at the table with them next week. I have never seen public debates and arguments about collective bargaining agreements be good for anyone, and so I'm not going to engage in those things. And I think a picket line and forcing people to decide either to show up or not show up wouldn't [have] been the right thing to do. Our idea was to give thanks, not just to our firefighters, police officers, EMS and aid workers, but everyone that came from far and wide. I think that their concerns have heightened to a point where they felt like they had to do this.

So I don't hold anything against them, and we're going to be at the table next week. I think the role of mayor — being the steward of people's money and the guy who has to make sure that the workers feel appreciated and get paid what they're supposed to — is always in tension. And we're not a rich community by far, so that always is a thing that we're trying to say, how do we pay the most we possibly can to show the people we appreciate their work ... but do it without breaking the bank? When I took office, we had just come out of being in a structural deficit of $24 million, which means we were out $24 million in the budget of $320 million or less. I have felt that pain and I don't want to go back there, so I'm very hyper vigilant about how we spend our money. All that and then on top of it being the anniversary and we wanted to commemorate it, we didn't want to mix the two so we called it off.

Mathieu: You’ve indicated that you do want firefighters to have a contract [and] that you're working toward progress?

Rivera: Absolutely.

Mathieu: Mayor, I'd like to ask you about the business side of this. You mentioned that some businesses didn't recover. Is it possible to quantify the economic impact on the city of Lawrence? Have you been made whole?

Rivera: No, I think that an economy is a breathing, living thing. It's a thing that changes depending on what's happening on the ground and in the overall economy. What we have is a situation where people lived in and around these businesses [and] would go to those businesses to get products and services. For many months they were away from their homes, so they were away from their businesses. So that impact was very clear. When they were away they made all these new and different habits of where to go get their hair done, where to go buy their food or bring their kids to eat. And it's tough to get them back into that.

There are a slew of businesses that, regardless of whether or not the fire would have happened, were going to fail. Businesses fail. Small businesses fail at an alarming rate in the United States because that's just the nature of small businesses. Some were going to fail anyway, but some were open for a while and failed after. I think about Sushi Inaka — they were just teetering, and this thing pushed them over. And they're gone. There are a couple of places like that — a couple of bodegas that are the same way. The difference between that and a big company is that it wasn't just that they were a center for food, products and services, they were also what supported a whole family.

The family that owns Sushi Inaka is without income. The family who was supported by one of these bodegas — Papi’s Bodega on South Union — they don't have any income. It's gone. But what made it worse was that the claims process with Columbia Gas wasn't like they were getting reimbursed one dollar lost, one dollar back from Columbia Gas.

One of my biggest criticism's with them is that they let the attorneys, insurance brokers and accountants run the process of getting people made whole with the claims. You think that might make sense, but it only makes sense if you're dealing with a company. You're not dealing with a company, you're dealing with a person and family. In that environment it's very difficult to perceive that Columbia Gas acted — they may think that they acted in the best corporate citizen way, but I don't think that that's the case.

Mathieu: You don't want their license pulled at this point?

Rivera: I do, absolutely.

Mathieu: You want their license pulled?

Rivera: The license pulling thing is less about Columbia Gas than it is about us. This disaster isn't a gas disaster. It wasn't a pipes in the street disaster. It was a human disaster. And here in October and November — in my house probably this month — we’re going to turn the heat on. We're going to have to rely on this gas that destroyed our lives last year to heat our houses, to warm our food and all these things that we haven't done for a year.

That's a privilege to have the contract [and] license to do that in this commonwealth, and I think that Columbia Gas has lost the privilege to do that. The only way anyone else who comes after them — because someone has to run the utility — ensures that [they] don't do the same thing [is] you create this big of a disaster [and] someone loses their life, you guys are gone. By the way, they were totally unprepared for it; no one's ever seen a plan that they had prior to the explosions for this level of emergency, even though they told the Senate committee that came to Lawrence — Sen. Markey and Sen. Warren — that they had one. But I've never seen it [and] no one's ever seen it. So I'd like to see if they still do have one.

Mathieu: It sounds like this part of the story is far from over.

Rivera: Yeah. That whole idea that you could have none of this and still do business in Massachusetts is weird [to me]. Even if they had been really well-prepared, and even if they'd done the best corporate citizenship they could have done, that would have bought them some goodwill from us, I think. But in the end you still want to say a company that decides to take an engineer off one of the most important road work that you could possibly do, to save money, is putting money before safety, and that should be a terminable offense.

Mathieu: Well lastly, as we reach the one year point, what's your message to the people who live in the city of Lawrence after a year of rebuilding?

Rivera: I want to say three things to them. One is you're not alone. If you still feel like you need help or you need resources to reach out, we're still here. We will always be here. That's financial, physical and mental. Whatever you need, just reach out. If you need a hug, stop me in the supermarket.

Second is keep fighting. Keep fighting all the processes [and] bureaucracies. Make sure people are doing what they say they're going to do, including us. City government, Columbia Gas [and] state government, we all have a role to play, and we all should be held accountable for getting something done for them. It's your right and at the end you should be made whole.

And then lastly just thanks, because they have been the best part of this, being super patient, honest and not rioting. In some places the stuff that happened here would have caused riots. Not riots in the looting way, but riots of displeasure, upheaval and demanding somebody's head. We didn't have a mob. Even when we were trying to get people out of the city we had zero crime. They were very, very patient with us, and so I just want to make sure they know we thank them for that.