ELLSWORTH, Maine — June McAlpine was annoyed that her minivan had been making strange noises as she ran errands Wednesday in Ellsworth. When it stalled near her 44 Red Bridge Road home, she was confused.
McAlpine was driving home from the grocery store with her three young children, she said. After the car went dead, she said she pushed it a ways before it started again. She parked the 2002 Dodge Caravan near a shed a short distance from her front door.
She went inside and started making dinner for the kids, figuring she would have her husband Bruce check it out when he got home. At that point, she said she smelled antifreeze and could see the car had been leaking the blue fluid.
Fifteen minutes later, McAlpine heard a boom. She looked out the window and saw smoke pouring from the van. A neighbor, Josh Wilbur, was visiting and ran out to try to put out the fire. He said he saw flames when the wind shifted and cleared the smoke.
“I ran out with the fire extinguisher, but it was just a little one,” Wilbur said. “Once the windshield blew out, I stepped back.”
At that point, McAlpine was dialing 911. She had to use her daughter’s phone because her trembling fingers couldn’t manage her smartphone’s touchscreen.
“I was just so stressed out,” she said. “It was hard to dial 911, I was panicking so hard.”
Ellsworth Fire Department received the call around 5 p.m., according to Lt. Ken Worden. Engines 4 and 7 responded, and by that time, the van was fully engulfed in flames, he said. By the time firefighters had extinguished the blaze, the van was gutted. Not a window, seat cushion or plastic interior detail was spared.
The gravity of the blaze hit McAlpine when, just before 6 p.m., she was allowed to examine the damage.
“Where are the car seats?” she said as she peeked through the window. “They’re just gone.”
Lots of things can cause fires in cars, Worden said, from problems with electrical system to defects in the engine. He said the best you can do with an ignited vehicle is stay back and put the fire out.
“I don’t get near a car until I’ve got an air pack on,” he said. Worden said the vehicle’s shocks or gas could be dangerous in a fire, and steering columns contain magnesium, which burns hot.
By 6 p.m., the fire engines were gone and the destroyed van sat in a pool of foam and water, and McAlpine’s family and some friends were standing around, chatting about the extent of the damage.
Worden said it was unclear exactly what had started the blaze, but the fire and police departments were investigating.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.