BANGOR, Maine — The last thing Benjamin Johnson III ever did is what made tears well up in the eyes of the men and women he worked with, some who struggled to speak about the friend they lost a week ago.
Ben woke up to flames engulfing his Dow Road home and, after saving his wife, Christine, by putting her out on the roof, he turned back into the thick black smoke to get his three children, family members say. All four died of smoke inhalation.
“I have two kids myself and that really hit home when I heard what he tried to do,” Steve Clements of Swanville, a fellow card dealer at Hollywood Casino, said at a Saturday morning memorial gathering held at their workplace. “That tells you what kind of man he was. I don’t know his family, but I know he was a good father by his actions.”
“We’ve been calling him a hero,” fellow employee Yvonne Ward of Bangor said.
Ben, who would have turned 31 next week, died at the top of the stairs of the foreclosed home he hoped to buy. His children, Ryan, 4, Leslie, 8, and Ben, 9, perished in the room they slept in. The fire started because cardboard was stored too close to the downstairs wood stove used to heat the house.
Ben was a local bowler and former bowling coach, and also worked at Walmart in Bangor. His son, Ben Johnson IV, was in fourth grade and his daughter, Leslie Johnson, was a third-grader at Center Drive School in Orrington, but also had attended other schools in the area.
After the Hollywood Casino gathering that drew about 200 relatives, friends, fellow bowlers and co-workers, many in attendance went to Brookings-Smith Funeral Home for the wake. They joined teachers, bus drivers, other loved ones and the family left behind.
Pictures of Ben with his children, the kids playing together, individual shots of the four and photos of them with Christine rotated past as people reminisced.
Christine stood by two closed coffins, one that held her husband of more than 10 years and one that held her three young children. She spoke with and hugged people who loved her, her husband and her children. She was able to handle the pressure for a time, but her strength visibly waned within an hour’s time.
The grief was just too much, and her mother, Linda Burrill, went around the room explaining as Christine put on her jacket. It seemed no one really needed an explanation as to why the grieving mother, who lost her entire family in the worst home fire in Maine in 20 years, could no longer put on a brave face.
The children’s grandfather and Ben’s father, Orland resident Benjamin Johnson II, stopped to read the cards placed with each flower bouquet. He touched each one as he went.
One was addressed to “Baby Ben, the protector,” another to “princess,” and the third flower pot — a red firetruck with “The Chief” printed on its side — was addressed to “Rye, Rye,” the nickname of 4-year-old Ryan.
Candles with pictures of each person and their favorite things in life — NASCAR for Ben, horses for Leslie, tools and trucks for the boys — were placed in between the caskets, and seemed to act like a beacon to the children in attendance.
“It’s so overwhelming,” said Ben’s father, who stood near Ethel, his wife of 43 years. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”
The community, Ben’s two employers and his bowling buddies are rallying support for Christine. A spaghetti dinner was held Saturday night, donations have been made and a bowling fundraiser is scheduled for 1 p.m. Dec. 9 at Family Fun Bowling Center, described as a home away from home for the Johnsons.
Any donations that people want to give directly to Christine may be made at any People’s United Bank branch or Seaboard Federal Credit Union in memory of the Johnson Family.
Around 400 people, including some children, arrived for the Sunday funeral. Ben’s young nephew talked about getting noogies from his uncle and coloring and playing games with his cousins, and Ben’s sister, speaking through a friend, talked about how her brother loved being a dad and fell in love with his wife at first sight.
The three children spent a lot of time playing games in her house, said Burrill, her eyes lighting up as she recalled and told memories of her grandchildren.
“They always played together,” she said.