Report: Antique firetruck had insufficient brake fluid, leading to fatal July Fourth parade collision
BANGOR, Maine — Insufficient brake fluid caused the antique braking system on the city’s 1930 McCann Pumper to fail during the annual Fourth of July parade and is being blamed for a fatal collision that took the life of a Holden man.
The off-duty Bangor firefighter who was behind the wheel of the historic firetruck pushed so hard on the brakes while trying to stop the 12,800-pound pumper that he left pedal indents on the floorboards, according to the report on the fatal crash released Thursday by the Bangor Police Department.
“This inspection and testing of the fire truck concluded that there was a total loss of pressure at the master cylinder of the hydraulic braking system … due to insufficient amount of brake fluid and poor quality brake fluid which introduced air into the brake system,” the report states.
The 83-year-old water pumper, driven by Bangor firefighter Patrick Heathcote, 29, of Levant, failed to stop on Water Street after the parade route was diverted because of a standoff on Park Street about four blocks away.
“Unless responsible for the vehicle’s maintenance, and solely as an operator of the firetruck, Patrick Heathcote could not have prevented this crash from occurring,” states the report, which includes reports from the Maine State Police crash analysis unit and local detectives.
Heathcote and antique vehicle lover Wallace Fenlason, 63, of Holden, who was driving a vintage 1941 John Deere tractor, turned onto Water Street and at the “steepest point along the parade route, Fenlason reportedly stopped for other parade units in front of him,” the report states.
“Heathcote also attempted to stop, but the brakes on the fire truck failed and the truck struck the rear of the tractor causing it to overturn. Fenlason was ejected from the tractor [and] killed instantly when run over by the fire truck,” it states.
The grade of the road at the point of impact is 6.4 degrees, the report states.
Messages left for Heathcote this week seeking comment were not returned and he was not at work on Thursday, a receptionist at Bangor Fire Department’s Central Station said.
A member of the Fenlason family declined to comment on the report and other family members did not return messages.
Bangor police Officer Jim Dearing, who led the investigation, was on a day off on the Fourth of July, but because of the standoff he voluntarily assisted with parade traffic control. In his report he said he heard “a loud unison gasp from the crowd” and turned to see the tractor’s wheels in the air.
“Spectators started to scream and run away,” Dearing said. “When I approached the chaotic scene, I saw about a dozen spectators trying to either hold the fire truck in place or push the truck backwards.”
Heathcote, who had his two daughters as passengers, told investigators that the brake pedal went to the floorboard, and several witnesses said they saw the firefighter “standing on the brakes” trying to get the 6-ton truck to stop.
“It was apparent that the pedals had been pressed to the floorboards with a great amount of force,” the report states, referring to the indents.
The vehicle was slowed by the tractor, which became caught underneath it, and Heathcote eventually was able to stop the heavy vehicle by pulling the emergency hand brake, investigators concluded.
The continuous stopping and going along the parade route may also have been a contributing factor in the failure of the brake fluid, the report states.
The report does not indicate who is responsible for the upkeep of the firetruck, but it does say Heathcote took the truck out the day before the parade and on the morning of the parade to ensure everything was operating correctly.
Bangor Fire Chief Scott Lucas did not immediately return messages asking who was responsible for the truck’s maintenance.
City Solicitor Norm Heitmann said, according to a 1984 agreement, that the historic firetruck is owned by the city and leased to a group called the McCann Committee, which was made up of eight firefighters and then-Fire Chief Robert J. Burke, who refurbished the truck.
“I have found nothing but that document from 1984,” the city’s attorney said Thursday after the crash report was released.
Heitmann said it would not be prudent to comment on the investigation’s findings.
“What we’ve done is forward the report to our [insurance] carrier,” which is protocol, he said.
No claim has been filed, he said.
The agreement between Bangor and the McCann Committee says that the city will not sell the historic firefighting water hauler if the committee repaired and reconditioned the truck “to a reasonable operating condition.”
“The vehicle shall only be operated by a member of the Bangor Fire Department, and shall only be used for parades, displays, and other ceremonial purposes,” the 29-year-old agreement states. “The committee agrees to provide, at its expense, all necessary repairs and maintenance for said fire truck.”
Heitmann said the city-owned firetruck was not registered and did not have an annual inspection, both of which are required for vehicles that operate on public roads. Parade routes are not considered public ways because they are closed to traffic.
The braking systems of old fire apparatus are one of the first things that antique firetruck restorer Andy Swift, owner-operator of Firefly Restoration in Hope, checks when he starts on a new project.
“Now that this has happened, I’m going to be even more crazy about it,” Swift said Thursday. “We’re always rebuilding master cylinders and brake systems on trucks that have been sitting around for a while. They disintegrate [over time].”
The tragic events in Bangor have started discussions about changing state rules on vehicle inspections for designated antique vehicles, which currently are not required, he said.
“I knew, just like I said last time, that this was going to be a game changer,” said Swift, who owns and drives a 1927 American LaFrance firetruck and a 1974 BMW motorcycle. “But, I guess we’ll see. This was really a truly tragic accident.”
There are approximately 22,500 antique vehicles and motorcycles registered in Maine, according to Garry Hinkley, director of vehicle services for the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
A four-member team from the Maine State Police crash analysis unit based in Augusta, led by Sgt. Darren Foster, and an inspector from the state police commercial vehicle unit conducted the “vehicle autopsy” two weeks ago on the 1930 McCann Pumper, which is kept at the Hose 5 Fire Museum on State Street.
“It was a challenge because of its age,” Foster said last week.
He later said the hydraulic braking system on the pumper has the same mechanics as those used today.
Dearing, who made the crash reconstruction report, attended the crash analysis unit inspection on July 19 at Eastern Maine Community College.
When investigators opened the reservoir for the master brake cylinder on the 1930 McCann pumper, “the fluid was very low. The reservoir was measured at 4 inches deep, whereas the fluid measured only 1 inch in the reservoir,” the report states.
“The primary cause of this crash is brake system failure on the fire truck,” the conclusion of the report states.