Merrimack Valley Disaster Death Toll Rises

After a chimney fell on 18-year-old Leonel Rondon during the September 13 natural gas explosions, his death made national headlines. Speaking from the Rondon family’s home the next day, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker called the tragedy “about as immediate and enormous and gigantic demonstration of the force of a gas explosion I’ve ever stood next to.” (See “Natural Gas Disaster Racks Massachusetts,” Oil & Energy, Volume 20/Issue 9, Oct. 2018.)

Months later, Rondon’s sister, Lucianny, delivered heart-wrenching testimony at a congressional field hearing held at South Lawrence Middle School. “The grief we feel is unbearable,” she said. (See “Members of Congress Grill Utilities Over Natural Gas Explosions,” Oil & Energy, Volume 21/Issue 10, Nov./Dec. 2018.)

To date, most stories about the Merrimack Valley Disaster, including Oil & Energy’s, have quantified the direct impact of the September 13 natural gas fires and explosions in the range of 80-150 buildings damaged or destroyed, 20-25 people injured and one dead. However, a perhaps less attention-grabbing but no less reportable story from early November indicates that the Merrimack Valley Disaster death toll has actually doubled since that fateful night in September.

Reportedly, after the communities of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover were evacuated, 57-year-old North Andover resident Kenneth DeVeau suffered massive stress-induced cardiac arrest while at Andover High School, the evacuation center where he’d been taken. After being resuscitated, he was brought to Lawrence General Hospital, where, shortly thereafter, he slipped into a coma, remained unconscious for nearly two weeks, and eventually passed away on September 26.

In the brief period during which DeVeau was awake at Lawrence General, he reportedly asked a nurse if his house had exploded.

Attorney Marc Breakstone, who represents the DeVeau estate, has said the family intends to sue Columbia Gas and parent company NiSource for gross negligence and wrongful death. This would be the second wrongful death suit stemming from the Merrimack Valley Disaster, as the Rondon family had earlier expressed its intent to file a claim against the natural gas utility.

Kenneth DeVeau “was an avid fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins and also a fan of wrestling,” according to his obituary on the Berube-Comeau Funeral Home website. “He enjoyed playing board games and card games, watching television shows that made him laugh and enjoyed the simple things in life.”

DeVeau was born in Melrose, MA, attended school in Reading, and worked as a cashier for New England convenience store chain Building 19 as well as a Hess gas station. He suffered from a number of illnesses, “including Myotonic Dystrophy and a weakened heart,” according to the obituary.

“The negligence and potentially gross negligence of Columbia Gas directly caused the man being placed in an environment that his body couldn’t handle, resulting in a catastrophic heart attack and his death,” said Breakstone.

Under a deadline set in December by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, Columbia Gas has until October 31, 2019, to finish repaving and mending damaged roads and sidewalks and replacing temporarily repaired furnaces and boilers.

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