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Findings likely Monday on cause of deadliest Maine fire in 20 years

Posted Nov. 11, 2012, at 12:23 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 12, 2012, at 9:31 a.m.

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The house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington as seen on Sunday, November 11, 2012.
The house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington as seen on Sunday, November 11, 2012. Buy Photo
A team of state police and fire marshals confer in the living room of the house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012.
A team of state police and fire marshals confer in the living room of the house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012.
An investigator with the Office of the Maine State Fire Marshal looks in the master bedroom of the house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. A team of state police and fire marshals were trying to determine the cause and origin of the fire that took the life of one man and three children early Saturday morning.
An investigator with the Office of the Maine State Fire Marshal looks in the master bedroom of the house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. A team of state police and fire marshals were trying to determine the cause and origin of the fire that took the life of one man and three children early Saturday morning.
Fire Marshal Ed Archer looks down the chimney of the house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. A team of state police and fire marshals were trying to determine the cause and origin of the fire that took the life of one man and three children early Saturday morning.
Fire Marshal Ed Archer looks down the chimney of the house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. A team of state police and fire marshals were trying to determine the cause and origin of the fire that took the life of one man and three children early Saturday morning.
Investigators with Maine State Police and the Office of the Maine State Fire Marshal photograph and inspect electrical panel covers after removing them from the house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. Benjamin Johnson III, 30, his sons Ben, 9, and Ryan, 4, and 8-year-old daughter Leslie all perished in the early morning blaze on Saturday.
Investigators with Maine State Police and the Office of the Maine State Fire Marshal photograph and inspect electrical panel covers after removing them from the house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. Benjamin Johnson III, 30, his sons Ben, 9, and Ryan, 4, and 8-year-old daughter Leslie all perished in the early morning blaze on Saturday.

ORRINGTON, Maine — Investigators continue to work at the scene of Saturday’s house fire in Orrington that killed a man and his three children and left their mother hospitalized.

Preliminary results of the investigation could be released sometime Monday, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

According to McCausland, state fire investigators said they have made progress in their effort to determine the fire’s cause and hoped to conduct a few more interviews Sunday evening and talk with the mother before releasing their findings on Monday.

The people who died in the fire at 580 Dow Road were identified Saturday as 30-year-old Ben Johnson III, his sons Ben, 9, and Ryan, 4, and 8-year-old daughter, Leslie.

The fire’s sole survivor — wife and mother Christine Johnson, 31 — was listed in “serious” condition Sunday morning at Eastern Maine Medical Center. By Sunday evening, McCausland said her condition had improved.

Johnson suffered from smoke inhalation before being rescued from the roof by neighbors and firefighters. McCausland said it appeared Johnson escaped to the roof by a second-floor breezeway.

The bodies of the deceased are in Augusta with the state medical examiner. McCausland said the examiner had more work to do today before the bodies would be released.

John Gavelek was one of the Orrington firefighters who responded to the blaze. He wasn’t personally involved in recovering the fire’s victims, but said responders always face some soul-searching when a fire turns deadly.

“I think we all come back and second-guess our actions,” he said Sunday. “Those on scene first will wonder, what if they were there sooner, or if they had done something else? But we all know that everything was done that could be done. It’s just a tragic event.”

Investigators with the state fire marshal returned to the scene Sunday after working through sunset Saturday. There, they combed the rubble for clues, McCausland said.

It is unclear why the father and his children did not escape along with the mother. McCausland said investigators also are trying to determine whether smoke alarms in the home were working.

“Fire Marshals have made progress today,” McCausland said. “They have a few more interviews to conduct. We’re hoping they may be able to talk to the mother tomorrow, too.”

The Johnson family had moved into the two-story, beige, saltbox-style house from Bangor about six months ago. Ben Johnson worked at Hollywood Casino in Bangor and Christine Johnson is an author who worked out of the house.

Despite Veterans Day observances, the Center Drive School in Orrington — where Ben and Leslie Johnson went to school — will be open from noon to 3 p.m. Monday for anyone who wants to come in and reflect. One or more counselors will be on hand during those hours. A crisis team is being mobilized for Tuesday, when classes resume.

Saturday’s deaths brings the total fire fatality count for 2012 to 14, McCausland said. The state has averaged 17 fire deaths per year for the past decade, he said.

McCausland said Saturday’s fire was Maine’s deadliest in 20 years. The last time a single fire in Maine took four lives was in 1992, when Virgil Smith set fire to a Munjoy Hill apartment building in Portland, killing a baby and three adults. Smith was found guilty of arson and four counts of murder by depraved indifference and sentenced to 58 years in prison.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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