NORTH ANDOVER (CBS) — As heat and gas service returns to the thousands of families displaced by the Merrimack Valley gas explosions, the road back home will be even longer for families who saw their homes catch fire.
Dean and Mona Thornhill are now watching 42 years of memories get tossed into a dumpster. Many of the items that escaped the flames at the East Water Street home in North Andover were damaged beyond repair by smoke and water. “Forty-two years you bring something into your house, 85 percent we can’t use,” explained Dean Thornhill.
On Sept. 13, Dean knew something was wrong when he heard a sound from the gas stove in the living room. “There was a lot of noise coming out of that stove. Instead of a little flame, it was a flamethrower.”
Dean immediately ran downstairs to the heating system. “And this entire area was one big gas flame,” he said while pointing to the basement ceiling. “When I say the basement was engulfed, I knew there was nothing I could do.” But that wasn’t his biggest concern.
“We had four children in the back we had to get out of here.” Those four kids were in the home day care with his wife, Mona.
“I’m thinking it’s going to explode,” Mona recalled. Despite the fear of knowing her home was on fire, Mona managed to keep her composure in front of the children, all under the age of four. “You had to be strong for the kids,” Mona said.
Mona and Dean got the kids out safely and then waited on the street for help to arrive. “I could see smoke come pouring out of the house. And then [Dean] said that were no fire trucks available.” It would be hours before the Thornhills would learn they were victims of the biggest natural gas disaster in state history.
Their home is now unlivable. Mona shook her head when asked what life is like now, “It is so different. It is so different.” While the home is still standing, the smoke damage inside is irreparable. Walls are covered in soot, most of the furniture will be thrown away, and windows were shattered. The place will be gutted and it could take up to a year before the Thornhills will be able to move back in. For now, an apartment, five miles away, is their temporary home.
Still, The Thornhills consider themselves lucky. “We have a roof over our head. We have heat,” said Mona.
“We’re alive,” added Dean.
“Yeah,” agreed Mona, “We got the children out. I have nightmares about that.” The day care is now eerily quiet. The calendar Mona used to teach the kids about days and months is now frozen on September 13th. Fortunately, the fire never reached this part of the building but the smoke did.
Mona’s daughter-in-law now owns the day care and she is out of a job, indefinitely. And the dominoes keep falling. “Six families, three sets of siblings, and they are all displaced now,” explained Mona. “On an instant notice.”
Mona’s initial sadness has now turned to anger. The Thornhills says Columbia Gas replaced the lines on their street just last year but never installed the high-pressure valve that would have saved their home on Sept. 13. “Total negligence,” Mona called it.
“If a group of people came into the Merrimack Valley and set a bunch of houses on fire, and shut off everybody’s gas and took them out of their houses and put them in trailers our government would have those people arrested,” said an emotional Dean. Then Mona jumped in, “And they basically got away with it.”
The Thornhills want to hold Columbia Gas accountable by filing a lawsuit. They are also calling on company executives to resign. Dean recounted the moment he decided to file suit, “When they said that it was an ‘inconvenient incident.’ A young man died.” Eighteen-year-old Leonel Rondon was killed when a house exploded in Lawrence sending the chimney onto his SUV. “I’ve never sued anybody. Never thought I would. They deserve it,” Dean stated.
They are also asking local elected officials to give back any campaign contributions they received from Columbia Gas or its parent company NiSource. “I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that our state and local politicians took money from NiSource for their campaigns. I realize that happens. I would like to ask them now to give that money back,” said Dean. “If they are going to hold those two companies accountable and they are on our side give the money back. Be on our side.”
For now, the Thornhills find moments of normalcy, like at a birthday party for Abby, one of the day care kids. The families who used to see each other every day now have to settle for brief reunions. Months after the disaster, the parents are still applauding the Thornhills’ response.
“Dean and Mona are amazing,” said Laura St. Lawrence. Her three-year-old daughter, Erin, was in the home when it caught fire.
“They were watching their house burn down yet acting like nothing was happening so the kids didn’t panic,” said Abby’s mom, Katy DeMars. The families have all found temporarily child care and are counting the days until they can return to the Thornhills’ family-run center.
To thank Dean and Mona for their heroics, the kids presented the couple with brightly-colored capes emblazoned with their initials. “Abby said we were superheroes for getting her out of the school with the smoke in it,” Mona told us while she proudly displayed her new cape. Abby and her family also delivered a Christmas tree to the Thornhills, after Mona suggested she might skip the tradition this year. “We’ve always had a tree and I didn’t want this incident to change that,” said Dean.
Slowly finding a new normal when their lives feel upside down. “It’s always there in the back of your mind. No matter what you’re doing. You think about it,” explained Mona. “You dream about it. You wake up and it’s the first thing on your mind.”