ORRINGTON, Maine — Empty cardboard boxes stored too close to a wood stove started the fire Saturday in Orrington that killed a father and his three young children, the state fire marshal’s office said Monday.
As state officials released the findings of their investigation, students, parents and community members were meeting at Center Drive School in Orrington, where counselors were available to aid the grieving process of a community stunned by the devastating blaze, the deadliest fire in Maine in 20 years.
The state medical examiner’s office said the victims — 30-year-old Ben Johnson III and his children, Ben, 9, Ryan, 4, and Leslie, 8 — died from smoke inhalation. The bodies of the three children were found on the floor of a second-story bedroom; the father’s body was found at the head of the stairs, also on the second floor.
The victims were likely already dead when firefighters arrived early Saturday morning, Bucksport Fire Chief Craig Bowden said Monday. The firefighters attempted to enter the home but dangerous conditions forced them to withdraw, according to Orrington Fire Chief Mike Spencer.
The only survivor, Christine Johnson, 31, is being treated for smoke inhalation at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Investigators met with her Monday morning to report their findings, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.
Fire investigators said the home was heated with the wood stove and a propane heater insert in the fireplace, because the furnace was not working. The family had returned from an evening of bowling late Friday night and then started the stove, in the first-floor living room, McCausland said. The boxes were within inches of the stove, he added, and were likely used to help ignite kindling when the wood stove fire was started.
Also found near the wood stove was a container of lighter fluid, which likely helped spread the fire once the cardboard boxes ignited, McCausland said early Monday afternoon.
Neighbors and firefighters reported not hearing any working smoke detectors in the house, he said.
On Monday afternoon, Jennifer Hubler brought her daughter Hatty May, who was third-grade classmates with Leslie Johnson, to see a counselor at Center Drive School. She said her daughter was saddened by the loss of her schoolmate.
“It’s hard trying to come to terms with it,” Hubler said. “It comes in waves, but the school is doing a good job for the students.”
Superintendent Allan Snell said school officials decided early Saturday morning to bring in counselors from area schools to help the community process the sudden, tragic deaths.
Counselors were available Monday, while class was out of session for the observance of Veterans Day, and a crisis team will be available to assist students when classes resume Tuesday.
“We decided we ought to open up the school today and give friends and family and the community the chance to come in and reflect,” Snell said Monday afternoon.
Snell said Leslie and Ben Johnson began attending Center Drive School about six months ago but had adjusted quickly and made friends.
“They were very well-liked students, really nice young people,” he said.
Connie Coulton, an ed tech at the school, cried as she talked about the shock of the sudden, tragic deaths. She said she brought Leslie and Ben to lunch each day.
“They were just so full of life and energy,” she said. “I can’t believe they’re gone.”
Counseling was also available for firefighters who responded to the blaze, said Spencer, Orrington’s fire chief. They are called “critical incident debriefings,” he said. Firefighters involved in fatal fires meet in an optional group meeting to speak with a counselor.
The meeting also serves to determine whether individual crew members may need additional support, he said.
Another house fire on Saturday, in Augusta, also was fueled by flammable liquid, according to a Maine Department of Public Safety news release. The homeowner, 38-year-old Michael O’Leary, was badly burned after using gasoline to help start a wood stove fire. His wife, Amanda O’Leary, suffered smoke inhalation and the couple’s dog died in the blaze.
In the wake of both fires, State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said combustible items should be kept three feet away from any wood stove and flammable liquid should never be used to start a wood stove fire.
“The vapors are explosive and cause a fireball,” he said. “Only paper and kindling should be used to start a wood stove.”
Thomas also said families should have and practice escape plans from a house and have a central meeting spot outside to account for everyone.
“Smoke detectors, wood stove safety and having fire escape plans should be part of every Maine household to keep families safe this winter,” Thomas said.
Funerals for Ben Johnson III and his children are being arranged by Brookings-Smith Funeral Home in Bangor but had not yet been scheduled by Monday afternoon.
Johnson and his wife were familiar faces at Family Fun Bowling Center on Hildreth Street in Bangor.
“The entire bowling center is in shock. It feels like he’s been here forever,” said Andy Meucci, owner of Family Fun, which first opened in 1967.
“We were surprised he was only 30 because it seems like he’s been here so long,” added Meucci. “He started up with the Saturday morning youth league and did that for five or six years and has been in adult leagues ever since.”
Meucci said Monday the center planned to hold a memorial service and moment of silence before the start of the Monday Night Men’s League, which Johnson competed in.
Johnson was a member of an elite group as one of only three or four Family Fun bowlers ever with more than a half-dozen perfect 300 games in their careers. He bowled five 300 games in one year (2006) and had 10 total in his career.
“He’s a little bigger than life in the bowling scene,” Meucci said. “He also used to bowl Tuesday nights, but that got too expensive with having kids. He and Christine still bowled together in the Dunnett’s Friday Night Mixed Couples League, though.”
Meucci noted that “you get a ring every time you shoot a 300 and [Johnson] gave one to each of his kids.”
Johnson bowled for the five-man Bluez Cruz team in the men’s league.
“He was a great guy who really loved the game, and like I said, he was part of this place,” Meucci said. “It wouldn’t be rare to see him three or four times a week. He had half a dozen balls and all the equipment you could think of. It took him two or three trips to bring all his stuff in on league nights.”
BDN writer Andrew Neff contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto and Andrew Neff on Twitter at @riocarmine and @ANeffBDN.