ORRINGTON, Maine — A predawn house fire Saturday that claimed the lives of four members of a local family left residents of this small Penobscot County town reeling from shock and sadness.
The four who died in the fire at 580 Dow Road were identified as 30-year-old Ben Johnson III, his sons Ben, 9, and Ryan, 4, and 8-year-old daughter, Leslie, state public safety officials said Saturday.
The sole survivor of the fire was wife and mother Christine Johnson, 31. On Sunday, Johnson remained at Eastern Maine Medical Center, where she was being treated for smoke inhalation. She initially was listed in serious condition but her medical condition since has improved, Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland said Sunday evening.
State investigators continued to comb the charred structure on Sunday searching for the cause of the fire, which was reported at 2:38 a.m. Saturday. Preliminary results of that investigation could be released sometime Monday, McCausland said.
The people who were the first to arrive on the scene of the fire said it appeared that Ben Johnson died after putting his wife out of harms way on a breezeway roof and then going back inside the burning house to save his children.
Neighbors Terri and Doug Winslow said they were alerted to the emergency by Christine Johnson’s pleas for help.
Terri Winslow said she was awake when the fire broke out shortly after 2:30 a.m. on Saturday.
“I heard someone holler ‘Help!’” Winslow said in an interview Sunday morning outside her home. She said she initially thought it was an animal noise from the nearby woods but kept listening nonetheless.
“I heard it again and I woke my husband up and I asked him if he heard it,” she said. “And then we heard ‘Help, please, help.’ When I heard ‘please’ I knew it was a person. So we jumped out of bed and looked out the window and saw just orange light coming from that direction,” she said, referring to the Johnson’s home just down the road.
“I wasn’t sure what it was so I jumped on the phone and called 911. While I was talking to them, I was hollering out my window to her, just letting her know that we were getting help. And that’s when she said that her husband and kids were still in the house,” she said. Winslow said she could hear Ben and Christine Johnson talking to each other from across the yard.
“They were talking and it was anxious. like you can imagine. I could hear him talking but I couldn’t tell what he said,” she said.
“I told them — 911 — what was going on in the house and to hurry,” Terri Winslow said, pausing briefly to regain her composure.
The Winslows put their coats on, grabbed some extra jackets, and ran down the hill to the Johnsons’ home. When they arrived, Christine Johnson was on the roof of a breezeway connecting the house to the garage behind it.
“She’s, as you can imagine, frantic and said, ‘They went the wrong way, they went the wrong way,’” Terri Winslow said.
“I’m thinking her husband put her out the window and went back in for the kids because she (Terri Winslow) heard him talk to her before we got out of the house,” Doug Winslow said.
Doug Winslow said Christine Johnson “was thinking they went down the stairs to the front door because the stairs emptied out right down to the front door, right in the middle of the house, right behind the fireplace,” a brick hearth with a woodstove set inside.
The Winslows told her “to stay put, that she was safe and not try to get down,” Terri Winslow said. Johnson told them she thought the door was unlocked.
“We ran around the house [to the] back door. My husband threw a birdbath through the window and hollered in to see if we could hear any reaction but there was nothing,” she said. She said she was able to open the back door but the fire and smoke inside had built to the point that it was unsafe to enter.
The Winslows said that after a while they could hear glass breaking and parts of the house collapsing.
“You know, the worst thing is when you’re standing 30 feet away from someone who’s dying or dead and there’s nothing you can do,” Doug Winslow said. “That’s the definition of helplessness.”
When fire crews arrived, the distraught wife and mother told firefighters she was fine and to save her family, the Winslows said. Soon after that, firefighters helped her down from the roof.
“We covered her up and we just held her,” Terri Winslow said.
Orrington Fire Chief Mike Spencer said firefighters were forced to withdraw shortly after entering the house because conditions were too unsafe. McCausland said the bodies of Johnson and the three children were found a short time after firefighters entered the burning house.
Dave and Brenda Chase, who live across the street from the demolished home, remembered Ben Johnson as a hard worker who held a full time job at the Bangor Walmart Supercenter and a part time job as a dealer at Hollywood Casino.
Dave Chase said Johnson was excited about being close to buying his first home. Brenda Chase said she sometimes helped Christine with home improvement projects.
The Chases liked all three of the Johnson kids. They said the younger Ben was protective of his younger siblings and Leslie adored her mother. Ryan was “a tough little guy” who was always trying to ride his bicycle too close to the road and played mailbox pranks on them.
“He would put the red flag up and I would put it back down and he would put it back up again, David Chase said.
Until Saturday, life had been looking good for the couple, according to coworkers and friends. Christine Johnson, who had been writing out of their home, in October celebrated the release of her paranormal fantasy novel, The Quest for the Enchanted Stone.
Ken Goetz, casino manager at Hollywood Casino in Bangor, remembered Ben Johnson as an employee who customers and colleagues alike enjoyed.
“He was always happy, always smiling,” Goetz said. “He was one of our best dealers.” Saturday was a difficult day at the casino, which provided quiet space for coworkers who needed that as well as counseling and other support through the company’s human resources and employee assistance programs.
“It’s just a tragic situation,” he said. “I don’t think there are words to describe it. People including myself were devastated. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t think anybody will ever be able to make sense of something like this.”
Goetz said that last week, Ben Johnson — who usually worked the Thursday night shift — had asked to work dayside instead so he and his wife could host their first Thanksgiving dinner in the home they moved into about six months ago. Goetz said that instead, he gave his employee the entire day off.
“You should have seen the smile on his face as he walked away,” Goetz recalled.
Matthew Johnson, a close friend Ben Johnson but not a relative, is working at the Hollywood Casino to put together a benefit for the fire’s survivors.
He said that Ben, with whom he graduated from George Stevens Academy in 2000, Christine and the children had lived in several area communities, including Brewer, Bucksport and Bangor, before finding their dream home on Dow Road.
Despite the recent good years, Matt Johnson said Sunday that Saturday’s tragedy was not the first for his friends, who lost a child before giving birth to Ryan.
Superintendent Allan Snell said Saturday that Orrington school officials were briefed on the tragedy early that morning and notified staff at Center Drive School, where the younger Ben Johnson was in fourth grade and his sister, Leslie Johnson, was a third grader.
“They were both great kids, very nice kids,” Center Drive School Principal Roy Allen said early Saturday afternoon. “This is just such a tragedy. It’s going to be devastating for the kids because it’s such a small school and everybody knows everybody.”
Snell and Allen said that the school already is seeing an outpouring of support, both from the community and nearby school units that have offered to provide assistance with grief counseling and any other services that are needed. Snell said local fire officials also have offered to be at the school if they are needed.
Despite Veterans Day observances on Monday, Snell and Allen said the 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, they said. They said that a crisis team is being mobilized for Tuesday, when classes resume.
The bodies of the four family members were taken to Augusta for autopsies. The results were still pending late Sunday.
Funeral arrangements, which are being handled by Brookings Smith Funeral Home, had yet to be set as of Sunday night.
Correction: An earlier version of this story requires correction. The Johnsons were not renting the house at 580 Dow Road with the option to buy. They were living there while their purchase was being processed.