MEDWAY, Maine — Town firefighters accidentally broke three hoses, ran out of water and took what a town businessman estimated to be close to 30 minutes to replenish their water supply in failing to save his Main Road welding shop on Monday.
Richard “Dickie” Day of Medway smoldered like the ruins of his Day’s Welding & Machine shop when he described the volunteers’ performance, which drew mutual aid from East Millinocket, Lincoln, Mattawamkeag and Millinocket fire departments. The Maine Forest Service and the new Great Northern Paper Co. LLC also helped with firefighters and equipment.
“Bad. They did very bad. I used to be a fire chief here so I know how to do this,” Day said Monday. “There was just poor organization. Lincoln was better organized, Millinocket, East Millinocket.”
When asked how much damage was caused by firefighters’ inefficiency, Day responded, “about 99 percent.” He said firefighters could have stopped the fire had they responded faster, taking “10 to 12 minutes” to get to the fire despite their station being less than a half-mile away.
Medway Fire Chief John Lee defended his firefighters’ response. The firefighters did break hoses when a firetruck ran over them, but they and the other departments eventually had as many as 50 firefighters on the scene trying to save the nearly 8,000-square-foot building, he said.
“We did the best we could. We just couldn’t save it,” Lee said. “He is the owner. I don’t blame him. He is upset. I can understand it.”
“We had an excellent turnout for what we had [available in manpower]. There was nothing more that we could have done. Even if we had two new tankers here we would have had the same problem,” Lee said of the lack of a large number of volunteer firefighters in town who are immediately available to answer calls.
“We need new volunteers. All the towns are in the same position — trying to get more help,” Lee added.
Recruiting enough volunteer firefighters to keep local departments adequately manned is a chronic problem, particularly in northern Maine, where the population is increasingly elderly and sparse, state fire officials have said.
The fire could have been explosive, said Lee and Sgt. Tim York of the Maine State Fire Marshal’s office. The shop had several acetylene and air tanks, barrels of heating oil and kerosene and at least two parked vehicles in it, Lee said.
The first man on the scene, Lee said he saw a heavy volume of flame in the middle of the building when he arrived, having already called for mutual aid while en route.
The fire began in a pickup truck Day was welding a rocker panel onto after he left it to take a short break.
“I welded it on and felt it. It was cold,” Day said. “I went up to get a coffee. Another guy came and I heard a bang and I came down and there was a fire.”
Day dumped a fire extinguisher on the flames and went to get a hose, but by then “it was so smoky you just couldn’t see,” he said.
The 911 call reporting the fire occurred about 9:30 a.m., a Penobscot County Regional Communications Center dispatcher said. Town firefighters were still on scene dousing smoldering remains as of 3:30 p.m.
Despite being only partially insured against fire and suffering a downturn caused by the closure of the East Millinocket paper mill in April, the 66-year-old Day plans to reopen his business as soon as he can, he said.
At one point employing about 20 people at his businesses, he had owned the shop for about 25 years and also operates a sawmill in Woodville and rents apartments, now just employing a handful of family members.
“I got a son there and a son-in-law and a daughter who is here,” Day said, “and they got kids.”