As Columbia Gas workers drilled through the asphalt Sunday afternoon, sending piercing noise down South Broadway Street in Lawrence, the inside of Kyara Boutique was deathly quiet. Miguel Chavira has owned the clothing store in the heart of South Lawrence for more than 20 years, but after a gas leak on Friday, he says he’s seriously considering leaving town.

“Since the explosions last year, nobody wants to come to South Lawrence anymore,” Chavira said. “We are losing business both ways — by being closed, and because nobody wants to come around here anymore.”

After a gas leak was reported in Lawrence early Friday morning, Chavira kept his shop closed for Friday and most of the weekend.

“Hell. It has been hell,” Chavira said.

According to National Grid, 150 homes and businesses were affected, and more than 1,300 customers in the area were without power until Saturday night. Though they eventually stated the leak was an isolated incident, Columbia Gas officials issued a warning to residents Friday morning to evacuate their homes and two schools — a warning that brought back the trauma of last year’s gas explosions for many local residents.

“There is PTSD in this neighborhood,” said John Farrington, who grew up in Lawrence and has run his family’s business, Carleen’s Coffee Shoppe, for 21 years. “You get some of the older folks sitting around having coffee, and someone comes in and you get a smell of a diesel engine, or gasoline or something, and they panic. They want me to check my oven, they think there’s a gas leak, and you can see the sheer panic in their eyes.”

This weekend’s gas leak happened close to the one-year anniversary of a traumatizing time for business owners like Farrington, who were without power from September 2018 until January of this year following a series of gas explosions across the Merrimack Valley on Sept. 13, 2018, that shook up the community, displaced thousands, and resulted in the death of a young man.

Farrington said he’s still trying to figure out his debt from last year’s loss, and now he’s facing an estimated $8,000 of revenue loss from three days of closure following Friday's gas leak.

“I'm trying to survive and run this business and do well by the community and feed my family, and they're not letting me do any of it,” Farrington said. “They shut me down until Jan. 15 last year, put me in debt, and then didn’t pay my employees what they said they would pay them. I finally got my season back, and I was ready to get going again, and now I’m dead in the water. They stole my busy season from me.”

John Farrington
John Farrington says he's frustrated with Columbia Gas after having to shut down his coffee shop for months last year, and now for days during his busy season after Friday's gas leak.
Tori Bedford WGBH News

Farrington said that last year, he was hesitant to suggest that Columbia Gas should lose their utility license. But now, he’s joining Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera in his calls to strip the company of their power in the city.

“Last year I said I was sure they were going to follow up, and double down, and be very careful,” Farrington said, sipping Coca Cola in his empty coffee shop. “But now I’m seriously starting to wonder.”

According to Columbia Gas spokesperson Scott Ferson, 98% of claims from the Merrimack Valley are settled, which can only happen if customers accept a settlement. “There is also an independent ombudsman if Columbia and the customer cannot reach a settlement and the customer wishes to go that route,” Ferson said in an email Sunday. “When a water crew punctured the gas line Friday, Columbia responded right away and coordinated with the city.”

According to Ferson, safety measures were installed at each home so that “no event like last year is possible,” he wrote. “That said, we know this event was hard and a reminder of last year.”

Power was restored for nearly every affected home and business by Saturday at about 11 a.m., according to National Grid. In a statement issued Saturday, Ferson said gas crews spent the weekend repairing a gas main on South Broadway Street, pressure testing lines and going door-to-door to perform safety checks and relight natural gas appliances to affected customers.

Ferson also said that claims telephone lines are open and that Columbia Gas will have a claims office available for residents in the neighborhood throughout the week.

From Friday until Saturday, some displaced residents were staying overnight at a Red Cross shelter at Arlington School.

The gas leak was started when city contractors “inadvertently closed a gas valve” while checking water valves, according to a statement issued Friday evening from the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, Columbia Gas and the city of Lawrence. “It appears that this gas valve should have been disabled as part of pipeline reconstruction in 2018 and was not compliant with DPU standards,” the statement reads. “Out of an abundance of caution, Columbia Gas has identified 45 gas valves that the Department of Public Utilities has required Columbia Gas and mutual aid partners to immediately inspect and bring into compliance if necessary.”

Farrington said the warnings brought up feelings of disappointment and frustration from last year.

“People spent nights in hotels and shelters. I see no difference in what actually happened this time,” Farrington said.

While crews blasted the street and worked on pipes outside, a congregation poured out of St. Patrick’s Parish, where brother and sister Felix and Flavia Ovalles discussed the shaky feelings this weekend brought back.

“People are very, very scared,” Flavia said. “This is unbelievable. We never thought that this would happen again.”

Felix Ovalles lost power and heat from September until late December and was one of 30,000 people displaced from their homes after his boiler exploded last year, setting fire to his home. On Friday, he heard from city officials that his children’s school, St. Patrick’s, was being evacuated. That’s when Ovalles says he felt the fear that has stayed with him since last year.

“We didn’t know what was happening,” he said. “It was scary then, and it still is. If I smell a little gas, any leak or anything, all those memories come rushing back.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the time electrical service was restored in Lawrence on Saturday. It was about 11 a.m., not 9 p.m.