Sept. 13, 2018, is a day that residents of the Merrimack Valley will never forget. Explosions and fires rocked the cities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, killed one man and seriously injured more than a dozen others.
Leonel Rondon, 18, died when a chimney fell on top of his parked car. About 8,000 people were displaced after more than 100 homes burned.
The disaster was pinned on utility company Columbia Gas and its mismanagement of underground natural gas lines in the Merrimack Valley. In 2020, Columbia lost a lawsuit launched by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, forcing the utility company to pay more than $56 million in fines and promise to never operate in the Bay State again.
Now the largest fine ever issued under the Federal Pipeline Safety Act, Columbia Gas also settled a class action lawsuit for $143 million brought by victims of the Merrimack Valley gas explosions. While 11,000 people received compensation, many others are still waiting for their checks.
Every year since the tragedy an award is presented in the memory of Rondon. This year it will be given to the Lawrence Fire Department, along with a donation that will go toward fire and explosion prevention efforts. Rondon's family said they're forever grateful to those first responders.
The public was invited to attend a vigil held in Rondon's honor Monday afternoon at Leonel A. Rondon Square in Lawrence.