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ORRINGTON, Maine — The man who lost his life Saturday morning in a fire was awakened by a fire alarm he had purchased hours before and died trying to save his three young children after saving his wife, his father said Tuesday.
“He took one deep breath and said I have to go after my children and that was the last thing,” Orland resident Benjamin Johnson II said of his son, Ben Johnson III.
Ben Johnson III and his wife, Christine, had gone bowling Friday night and went to Walmart afterward to get mittens and hats for their children, and also picked up a smoke and carbon monoxide detector, his father said.
When they got home they started a fire in a downstairs wood stove — used to heat the foreclosed home they were trying to buy — just before heading up to bed.
Despite what the grieving father said, neighbors and firefighters reported that they didn’t hear any working smoke detectors in the house.
“It was going off and that is what woke Ben up and he woke her up,” said the elder Johnson after speaking with Christine Johnson on Tuesday.
His son somehow got his wife out a second story window and onto the roof of a breezeway connecting the house to the garage. He then went to get his kids but never returned.
“She said she sat there saying, ‘Come to the window! Come to the window!’” Johnson said of his daughter-in-law. “She also was yelling for help.” Neighbors heard her screams and called 911, but it was too late to save those caught inside.
His body was found at the top of the stairs, and the couple’s children were in an upstairs bedroom.
Ben Johnson III, 30, and his sons Ben, 9, and Ryan, 4, and 8-year-old daughter, Leslie, died from smoke inhalation in the blaze, which was reported at 2:38 a.m. Saturday. The fire started because cardboard was stored too close to the downstairs wood stove used to heat the house, the state fire marshal’s office said Monday.
“We’ve all been taught not to go back into a burning house, but when it is your family — you do things that are not logical,” said real estate agent Philip Cormier, who had been working with the Johnsons to purchase the home at 580 Dow Road.
The family was basically “house sitting,” paying $1 a month, until a short sale on the foreclosed home went through, he said.
“They wanted to find a way to get out of their mobile home in Brewer,” Cormier said Tuesday.
The family moved into the foreclosed home in April, and discovered the pipes to the furnace and water heater were cracked and leaking water, but the other water lines were operational, the real estate agent said.
The contractual agreement between Ben Johnson and JPMorgan Chase Bank, the owner’s lender, said the couple would take ownership of property “as is,” for a reduced purchase price, according to Cormier.
“The location was right, the size was more than he could even imagine,” Cormier said of the Orrington house. “Coming from a two-bedroom trailer with a leaking roof that cost too much to heat in the winter, to a house with a driveway and garage, space for the kids and having a living room and a separate kitchen — it was pretty special.”
The couple had already secured financing to buy the two-story cape through a low-income federal housing program, which included funds to replace the old furnace, which was installed when the house was built more than 45 years ago, he said.
Cormier visited with the family 10 days before the fire — the worst fatal conflagration in Maine in the last 20 years — to drop off paperwork and tell the Johnsons he expected the sale with JPMorgan to be completed in January or February. They also discussed how to heat the house with winter just around the corner and the furnace not working, he said.
“I knew it was not operational because I helped him turn the water on” when the family moved in, the real estate agent said.
“It’s very, very sad,” he said, echoing a sentiment repeated by numerous other people in the community. “It’s tragic.”
Ben Johnson III, worked two jobs — dealing cards at Hollywood Casino in Bangor and restocking shelves at the Bangor Walmart Supercenter — to support his family. His wife is a writer who in October celebrated the release of her paranormal fantasy novel, “ The Quest for the Enchanted Stone.” She was treated for smoke inhalation at Eastern Maine Medical Center and spent two days at the hospital recovering.
“She is physically and mentally really tore up,” her father-in-law said.
The two met with funeral home personnel Tuesday, and are aware of a fundraiser planned at Family Fun Bowling Center, a Bangor bowling alley that was like a second home to Ben Johnson III, owner Andy Meucci said.
“We’ve had so much interest from people wanting to help,” he said.
Ben first picked up a bowling ball when he was only 4 and went on to travel the state to play and coach others in the sport, his father said.
Mike Marsh, who went bowling with Ben at Family Fun in the hours before the fire, is helping to organize the fundraiser, which is being co-sponsored by Family Fun and Hollywood Casino.
“He was a dear friend of mine and I am setting this up in his honor,” Marsh said. “All proceeds go to a trust fund which we are setting up in Christine’s name.”
The “9-10 no tap” fundraiser is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9 at Family Fun, and gives bowlers who knock down nine pins a strike, the bowling alley owner said.
The cost is $10 per person for three games and the cost for children under 12 is $5. Bowling shoes will be provided if needed, Marsh said on a Facebook post announcing the fundraiser.
Each round will accommodate about 100 bowlers, and players can bowl until 5 p.m.
“We’ll just keep turning over” lanes until we run out of time, Meucci said.
Ben bowled for the five-man Bluez Cruz team and his fellow bowlers raised about $250 for the cause Monday night, the bowling alley owner said.
“That was just the guys in the Dunnett’s Monday night men’s league,” he said. “He was such a good kid. Everybody is just in shock. He was brought up from the ranks right here, [starting] as a pee-wee bowler.”
Ben Johnson IV was a fourth-grader and his sister Leslie was a third-grader at Center Drive School, which opened Monday, Veterans Day, to provide a place for those grieving to talk and get counseling, said Superintendent Allan Snell.
Additional counselors and staff, to replace those who needed a break, were brought in when school resumed Tuesday, he said.
“We’ve got counselors here from all over the area — Brewer, Bucksport, SAD 63 — and I’ve heard from Orono, Bangor and others,” Snell said early Tuesday. “It will be a hard day. Tomorrow will be better.”
Calling hours for family and friends of the Johnsons are 2-5 p.m. Saturday at Brookings-Smith funeral home, 133 Center St., Bangor, and the funeral is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at at the same location. The burial will be private.
“The family invites relatives and friends to share conversation and refreshments at the Lancaster Room of Hollywood Casino” between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, just before calling hours, a funeral listing in the Bangor Daily News states. Hollywood Casino is located at 500 Main St. in Bangor.
Those who want to make contributions in the Johnson family’s memory may do so through the Johnson Family Fund, care of Seaboard Credit Union, P.O. Box G, Bucksport 04416.