NORTH ANDOVER (CBS) – Three weeks from the first anniversary of the Columbia Gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley, some people who were burned out of their homes still haven’t been able to move back. Dean and Mona Thornhill are among the victims waiting for insurance checks to arrive and for work to be complete.
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“The outside is looking all right. But we don’t live on the outside,” Dean said. He is talking about the new siding on the front of the house. Because it is the most obvious improvement from the outside, a visitor would assume that the work on the Thornhills’ home is moving right along.
But the same “improvement” underscores a maddening reality. Dean explained that the couple’s insurance would only pay for new siding on two sides of the home; not the front of the house that faces the street or the sides near the daycare or the back. That original siding is 15 years old. The Thornhills say they spent more than $11,000 out-of-pocket for new siding on the front of the house so that it would match the new panels on the side. They have filed a claim—hoping the insurance company will change its mind and cover that cost too. But, as they know all too well, there are no guarantees.
Inside, there are also no finished walls in the front half of the house. New wiring snakes along exposed studs. There is plumbing for Mona’s new washer and dryer on the second floor (a victory, she says, given that she was tired of running up and down stairs with laundry baskets) and space for new kitchen appliances and cabinets. But none of those items are installed. The home is uninhabitable.
Are they still months from moving in? “I asked my contractor that yesterday,” Dean explained. “He said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you.’”
Since the Thornhills ran from the home with children from their daughter-in-law’s daycare last year, the two retirees have waited.
For an apology from Columbia Gas that never came.
For a jury trial (they sued Columbia Gas) that likely won’t come because they have been added to a Class Action lawsuit against their wishes.
And for checks from their insurance company.
“It’s all about waiting for money…It took 100 days to get the first check,” Dean said. Then we got into code issues. That took another 100 days. So that’s about 200 days when nothing happened. Then you have to coordinate the subcontractors. It takes time…There’s no rule for insurance companies to act fast.”
They know now that it probably would have been easier to simply tear down the house and start over. But that was not an option, Mona explained. “They decided it could be fixed,” she said.
The home was built in the 1860’s. Initially, they were relieved to learn it would be saved because of its history and character. But right now, the home’s history—and their lives—are on hold.
Mona says, over the past 11 months, they have been beaten down by the process. “People on the outside think everything’s back to normal,” Mona said. “Everybody’s OK now. Everybody’s in their home. Everybody has what they need. It’s not true.”
It is also not true, they say, that the settlement Columbia Gas has proposed will make the victims “whole.” The company’s proposal of $143 million would be split among homeowners and business owners who suffered losses.
Dean shakes his head. “Sounds like a lot of money. But 149,000 people, I believe, are eligible and 10,000 businesses. Let’s say only a fraction qualify and get paid. Do the math. Simple math. It’s not enough. I don’t know how the attorneys would think that’s enough.”
The Thornhills are hoping the judge who is deciding whether to approve the settlement will reject it and order Columbia Gas to dig deeper. “The judge could be a hero if he rejects this,” Dean said. “It sounds like a lot of money. But once everybody gets a piece of the pie, it’s crumbs.”
Asked if there is any silver lining in the experience, Dean cites the community. He says they have met many wonderful people in the past year.
Mona answers with optimism. “We’ll be back in our home.”
They only wish they knew when.