NORTH ANDOVER (CBS) – No one expected the Merrimack Valley’s recovery from the Columbia Gas disaster to be seamless. But from the beginning, there was a sense that the company (whose over-pressurized gas line caused fired and explosions) would make people “whole” again. At the very least, most people assumed that—after repairs were made—displaced homeowners would resume their lives as they were before the September 13, 2018 explosion.

No one, least of all the survivors, expected to move home with tens of thousands of dollars in debt because their insurance company DIDN’T pay for repairs and renovations. But that’s exactly what has happened to Dean and Mona Thornhill.

WBZ-TV has been following the Thornhills’ saga since December, 2018. The gas fire that broke out in their basement forced them—and the children in their in-home daycare—to evacuate. The daycare still hasn’t reopened. In fact their daughter-in-law, who runs the daycare, hasn’t been able to care for kids or collect a paycheck since the fire. The daycare space remains unfinished.

Dean and Mona Thornhill’s home in North Andover (WBZ-TV)

The Thornhills finally moved back to their North Andover home around Christmastime. “It was awesome!” Mona exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. The home, with its freshly-painted walls and new furniture feels bright and warm. Dean and Mona proudly show of a space where their grandson can now enjoy sleepovers. Dean cursed the outcome of Patriots games from the new sofa but was glad to be back in his living room.

READ: The Road Back Home

And yet, the sense of comfort they expected to feel is often overshadowed by and being in their home of more than 40 years, they feel anxious. They estimate they are $50,000 in debt for repairs their insurance company (which expects to be reimbursed by Columbia Gas) will not cover.

“I don’t understand how you can have so much insurance—and the insurance company gets paid by Columbia Gas—and they want to challenge everything,” Dean explained shaking his head. “I don’t know how you put a price on not sleeping, stomach issues and aggravation.” In retirement, this was not the life they planned.

Dean and Mona Thornhill (WBZ-TV)

The wear and tear on the property, from work crews, was an expense they could not have anticipated. The deck, that Mona says she stained every year, is starting to rot. The dent in the new siding near the rear of the home, Dean says, was caused by the truck driver who picked up the workmen’s Port-a-John, clipped the side of the house and kept going.

Now, while they try to make a case with their insurance company to pay for repairs and try to negotiate with their contractor, they are also waiting for the official settlement amount from Columbia Gas. The company has offered a $143 million settlement to the survivors and affected homeowners.

The Thornhills are not confident—given the sheer number of people affected—that they will receive much money for their time, trouble and damage. But they try to remain optimistic. “We can’t let this ruin our lives.”

Lisa Hughes

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