DETROIT, Maine — Central Maine firefighters lost one of their own Monday when Hartland firefighter Michael Snowman, 49, collapsed at the scene of a house fire on Route 69 in Detroit and later died.
Snowman, who often provided traffic control at Pittsfield area fires because he worked in Pittsfield, was rushed to Sebasticook Valley Hospital and airlifted to Eastern Maine Medical Center where he died shortly before noon.
“This was his second family, the firefighters,” Pittsfield firefighter Claude Thornton said through tears at the fire scene. Other firefighters gathered in small groups and comforted one another when they learned of Snowman’s death after the fire was extinguished.
Thornton said Snowman’s brother and son were also firefighters for area departments.
Snowman had been a member of the Hartland Fire Department for more than 25 years, according to his chief, Donald Neal, and was the department’s secretary-treasurer.
Shortly after firefighters arrived at the scene, Snowman fell to the ground near one of the trucks by a nest of hoses. Those in the area thought he had tripped over the hoses, but he did not get up and did not move. Rescue personnel were hailed, and Snowman was lifted up and began talking, confirming he was at a fire scene and knew of his surroundings. While seated on the step of the firetruck, however, he again quickly lost consciousness and CPR was started.
Even as rescue workers were performing lifesaving measures on Snowman, his fellow firefighters from four communities were just 25 feet away, struggling to save the Madeline Wheeler home, a one-story wooden structure.
Firefighter fatalities in Maine do not happen very frequently, according to Richard Libby of Winterport who is on the memorial committee for the Maine State Federation of Firefighters. He said that on average Maine has a death approximately every two-plus years. Snowman’s death may be the fourth since 2000, Libby said. The last fatality involved a Springfield Volunteer Fire Department firefighter, Peter Beebe-Lawson, who died when the tanker truck he was driving rolled over on May 7, 2007, as he drove from the fire station along Route 169 to a fire on Mud Pond Road in Prentiss, according to Bangor Daily News records.
Wheeler said she was at a Newport pharmacy when the fire began and returned home to find the road blocked by fire apparatus.
“I was just here,” she said. “I was only gone minutes.” Wheeler said the home was not insured. She lived there with her sons Nathan, 9, and William, 14.
Looking at the burning home, Wheeler cried and turned away. “That’s all I have,” she said. The home was gutted and all of Wheeler’s possessions were lost.
Two dogs that were tied outside were uninjured but a snake and a third dog died inside the home.
Wheeler was particularly distraught when she learned of Snowman’s death Monday afternoon. “I am so sorry, so sorry,” she said through tears.
Rodney Witham, owner of Pittsfield Beef, was driving by on his way to work when he spotted smoke pouring from the home about 8:16 a.m. and called 911.
Firefighters from Detroit, Pittsfield, Newport and Plymouth fought the fire, which appeared to be centered in the area around a furnace at the front of the home.
Wheeler said family members had helped her install a used furnace over the weekend.
Sgt. Kenneth Grimes of the State Fire Marshal’s Office was on the scene with a team of investigators. The team was investigating both the cause of the fire and the details surrounding Snowman’s collapse, since his is considered a death in the line of duty.
Later investigators from the office said the fire was caused by an overheated electrical outlet.
The Red Cross and the local chapter of The Salvation Army were providing temporary assistance to the Wheeler family. Donations will be accepted by any member of the Detroit Fire Department. The family’s sizes are: Nathan, 8 to 10 youth; William, 38-32 pants, and extra large or 2x shirts; Madeline, women’s 14, or medium to large.
Neal said arrangements for Snowman’s funeral were not complete.
A debriefing for all responding firefighters and rescue personnel was held Monday night at the Pittsfield Fire Station.