BANGOR, Maine — An off-duty city firefighter who was driving the antique firetruck that collided with an antique tractor and killed its driver during the Independence Day parade has been placed on leave, officials said Friday.
Because of the severity of the incident, Bangor firefighter Patrick Heathcote, 29, of Levant will remain on paid nondisciplinary leave until he is judged ready to return to work, Fire Chief Scott Lucas said.
“We have actually referred him to our employee assistance program,” Lucas said Friday. “He is upset and concerned about this.”
Wallace Fenlason, 63, of Holden died after a 1930 Hose 5 Museum firetruck Heathcote was driving rear-ended Fenlason’s 1941 John Deere tractor on Water Street about 12:40 p.m. Thursday, police and witnesses said.
The parade had been rerouted onto Water Street off Main Street to keep spectators and participants safe from a standoff on Park Street in which a former Detroit, Mich., man was arrested. The suspect fired more than 70 rounds from a handgun on Thursday morning, according to police. No one was injured in that incident.
The police investigation into the fatal collision is continuing, said Police Chief Mark Hathaway, who also said he made the decision to reroute the parade onto Water Street.
No other city employees appear to have been involved in the accident, Lucas said. Fire Department leaders “immediately activated our stress management team and chaplain” to help firefighters and others who might have been traumatized by the incident, he said.
“My primary focus at this point is the healing of our firefighter [Heathcote] and our department,” Lucas said.
Heathcote could not be reached for comment on Friday.
City Manager Cathy Conlow expressed sympathy to Fenlason’s family. She said she believed the decision to reroute the parade over Water Street was reasonable.
“We know it was a tragedy and there’s nobody in the city that doesn’t want to find the answers and work with whatever we need to [in order] to get the answers to this,” Conlow said Friday.
“Our hearts go out to the family who lost a loved one and our first responders who worked hard yesterday,” Conlow added. “They did a great job.”
Heathcote, a firefighter-paramedic, was certified to drive firetrucks, Lucas said. A friend of Heathcote’s, Orono firefighter Dennis Bean, also described him as experienced in driving antique firetrucks in parades.
Fire officials have no indication that Heathcote violated any Fire Department or city policies in this incident, Lucas said.
As near as Lucas could can tell, Hose 5 took good care of the truck, he said.
“As a museum piece it was refurbished and seemed to be well maintained,” he said.
Conlow and Lucas said said they had heard no previous complaints regarding the firetruck’s roadworthiness. Hathaway declined to comment on any such questions until the investigation is finished.
Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards said Thursday that firetruck passengers told police that a mechanical failure caused the truck to go out of control in front of a large crowd of parade-watchers.
Hathaway said Friday that it was far too early to tell what caused the accident.
“I anticipate that this investigation will go well into next week,” Hathaway said.
The firetruck “stalled and started to roll” on Water Street from Main Street, said Tammy Haskell, who said she was standing at Main and Water streets when the accident occurred.
She and several others said the tractor appeared to have stopped before it was hit. The tractor and truck were very close together, 5 feet or less, as they traveled Water Street, the witnesses said.
The vehicles appeared to have come to rest less than 100 feet from Main Street.
Hathaway said his decision to use Water Street came after consultation with Brewer Police Chief Perry Antone. Antone, Hathaway said, spoke with Doug Damon, chairman of the parade, which was not a city-sponsored event.
“We had to make a decision to cancel or re-route,” Hathaway said Friday. “Shortly after 10 a.m. it seemed prudent to discuss this and I suggested we could adjust the route and use Water Street and disband at Key Plaza.”
Police would stay on the job and reposition themselves accordingly, Hathaway said. He was just leaving the shooting scene when the accident occurred.
“My single goal is to ensure that the spectators and participants were safe and in no way in harm’s way from the shooting incident,” Hathaway said.
A 1930s firetruck is a challenging vehicle to drive in a parade down Water Street, said Bean, who has driven his 1936 Chevy Rutledge antique firetruck in 50 or 60 parades and events, including Bangor’s.
Bean questioned whether the parade’s drivers knew in advance of the change in parade route caused by the shooting. Such changes have surprised him before, he said.
“I don’t think you could find a more difficult intersection to try to maneuver one of them in,” Bean said of Main and Water streets. The parade headed down Main and made a right turn onto Water Street, another downhill grade.
Driving in parades involves a strenuous combination of pressing a clutch to change gears, braking, turning wheels without any power steering at less than 10 mph and watching for pedestrians and fellow marchers, Bean said.
Main and Water streets also are typically very crowded with parade-goers, said Bean, and full of distractions.
“You are trying to keep the truck moving and at the same time make the turn, and you don’t want to go out of control going down the hill,” Bean said of Water Street.
Bean said he typically drives with several passengers as spotters to help him avoid collisions. He has refused to participate in many parades around the state because the terrain and crowds are too difficult.
“You don’t have the clearance in front of you to just accelerate or go down the hill. You have your hands on the shifter, and you’re trying to turn the wheel and keep that truck in a forward gear,” Bean said.
An area such as Water Street might force an experienced parade driver to keep his vehicle so far from others that it would look like a break in the parade, he said.
Lucas is investigating the history of the ownership of the firetruck, which appears to belong to Hose 5, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving Bangor Fire Department history, but that is unclear, he said.
“It may be that there was some city money involved” in Hose 5’s purchase of the firetruck, Lucas said.
Lucas said that the truck doesn’t appear to have been city property since about 1994.
Conlow said second-guessing city officials’ decision to re-route is probably pointless.
“There is no way we could have anticipated this. It is just a tragic accident,” Conlow said.
“It was a tough day all around. It was a terrible tragedy in what should have been a great day,” she added. “All we want to do is find out what happened and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”