LAGRANGE, Maine — Passers-by used coffee and jugs of water to douse flames that severely burned a 60-year-old local man when a six-gallon can of off-road diesel fuel exploded as he burned an old stump in his convenience store’s side yard on Thursday.
John Decesere, co-owner of Four Corners Variety and Redemption Center, suffered burns to his face, head, torso and arms, his wife, Joanne, said. A LifeFlight helicopter flew him from the LaGrange fire station to a burn bed at Maine Medical Center in Portland after the 11:20 a.m. accident. He is in fair condition, a hospital spokeswoman said Thursday afternoon.
Carpenter Tom Russell of Alton was buying coffee and a slice of pizza at Four Corners, the town’s only retail store, when he heard the explosion — a blast so loud that he thought he felt it, he said.
“Somebody behind me said, ‘I hope that wasn’t John,’ but we both knew it damn well was. We went outside and he came around the corner screaming,” Russell said. “It was like something out of a horror movie. There was flames all on his upper body and his head was burning.”
The 48-year-old Russell’s first thought was to take off his shirt and smother the flames or to douse Decesere with water, but all he had was pizza and coffee, so he dropped the pizza, put his hand on Decesere’s head and splashed him with the coffee, extinguishing the flames, he said.
“Usually, you wouldn’t want a hot cup of coffee in the face,” Russell said, “but at that point that’s all I had.”
“We got him out and he hollered to a bunch of people to get gallon jugs of water from the store. We set him down in a chair there and people started putting the water on him,” Russell added. “He was getting in rough shape. His hair was all burned. You could see he was burnt bad. He had a little bit of shirt left on him but not much.”
Several other store customers and workers, including Decesere’s brother-in-law, store clerk and cook Al Highers, hit Decesere with cold water until paramedics arrived. LifeFlight was airborne within 10 minutes of Highers’ 911 call, he and a Penobscot Regional Communications Center dispatcher said.
“He was shaking and shivering,” Highers said of Decesere.
Russell said Decesere told him the red plastic gasoline jug carried No. 2 of off-road diesel fuel.
“That diesel is probably worse than gasoline [when] ignited. Nobody had seen him do it but I think he was pouring it on the fire when the accident occurred because it was all over the front of him,” Russell said. “There were pieces of that jug all over the parking lot.”
Russell said he has welded diesel fuel tanks and that diesel is relatively safe so long as no fumes escape from it and contact flame.
“Like if you are welding, you fill a tank full of diesel fuel you can weld it,” Russell said. “but if you have an inch or two of space in there where fumes can get in, it’s just like a bomb went off.”
Joanne Decesere fought tears as she stood hours later in her store and described how she was shopping at Walmart in Bangor when she got the news about her husband.
Customers and friends milled around her, and a deliveryman wheeled in crates of goods. Like a lot of rural stores, Four Corners sells a little bit of everything, from deli sandwiches to tires, and has a few tables where customers eat and talk.
Joanne Decesere wrestled with her desire to see her husband and her need to oversee the store in his absence. Besides worrying for her husband’s life, Decesere feared the cost of his medical care.
“We can’t afford health insurance,” she said. “It just costs too much. We haven’t had it in years because we’re both pretty healthy people. I was hoping that nothing major would ever happen to him.”
Decesere held in her right hand what looked like a dozen lottery tickets her husband had that were so badly singed that she worried they would not be redeemable.
“I hope he doesn’t have a winner,” she said with a laugh before she looked pained and her eyes misted with tears.
John Decesere, friends and neighbors said, is a hardworking man who likes helping people. He was getting to be a bit famous for his determined battle with the huge blackened stump in the store’s side yard — he hated the stump, they said — but was far better known for his community contributions despite having owned the store for only four years.
“He’s a pretty good fella if you catch him on the right day,” Highers said. “He would help anybody he could help.”
A month ago, when he heard that a neighbor’s basement had flooded, Decesere helped him pump it out, Highers said.
“He is good to the community,” said Barbara Robinson, a former clerk at the store who was filling in there Thursday to give Joanne Decesere a break. “He and Joanne are always doing something for somebody. If something happens to somebody in town, they find a way to help out.”
“I go to that store every day. They have worked hard there. He is a worker. He has done a lot,” Town Clerk and Tax Collector Ella Lyford said. “He took that store and has just remodeled it from top to bottom. He works there every day. He will putter all day like today, doing that stump, and at 3 o’clock he would have gone in and covered that store until 9 p.m. to give his wife a break.”
Running a small business is difficult anywhere, but especially in LaGrange, a town of about 900 people in Penobscot County about 15 miles southwest of Howland and 10 miles from Interstate 95’s Exit 199.
“We have no surrounding businesses around us. The economy being the way it is, it is a struggle,” Lyford said. “Every cent they get they invest back into the store. I know that because I am in there most every day and I talk to them. They are friends of mine. I respect them as very good people. Good people. It breaks my heart to see this happen.”