YARMOUTH, Maine — It was 5 a.m. Sunday when Anita and Ken Anderson stepped out of their car and walked through pre-dawn darkness toward their home of 14 years.
Anita hadn’t slept well during the night. She felt uneasy about the task at hand.
“This is not a good feeling,” she said.
Soon, fire engines arrived in a slow procession. The gleaming red trucks parked along the curb and idled while 26 uniformed firefighters stepped onto the dewy lawn and waited quietly under bright floodlights.
Fire Chief Mike Robitaille approached the Andersons in their driveway and gave Ken a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
“Are you ready?” Robitaille asked.
“Yes,” Ken replied.
Within minutes, the Andersons’ house was engulfed by a fire that firefighters deliberately set.
Standing next to a dozen stoic firefighters in the driveway, the couple took cellphone pictures of their dream house as it slowly collapsed into embers, their faces illuminated by the orange glow of towering flames.
The Andersons have grown accustomed to the firefighters’ presence.
For two weeks beginning in August, the Andersons’ spacious suburban home served as a training ground for the Yarmouth Fire Department. The crew logged about 400 man-hours at the property, fighting small, deliberately set fires from room to room. Then, on Sunday, Sept. 8, the fire company burned 32 Balsam Lane to the ground.
The real damage, however, had occurred two months earlier.
The day of the blast
It was 6:17 a.m., June 25, when the explosion struck. Anita Anderson was still in bed. Outside, Ken was in the driveway grabbing the morning paper.
The blast originated from 50 Gables Drive — a condo one street over — and the shock wave radiated outward, damaging a dozen buildings, some as far as 200 yards away. Peter Corey, 66, was killed. Four people received minor injuries.
The path of the blast was relatively unobstructed between 50 Gables Drive and 32 Balsam Lane. A clearing through the forest that separates the two streets funneled the energy directly toward the Andersons, who are in their late 60s.
The abrupt pitch of the driveway seemingly protected Ken from the blast wave, sending the energy over his head, but the 29-year-old house behind him bore the brunt.
The blast shoved the house several inches off its foundation, warped the floor, cracked the walls and popped screw heads through the wallboard.
The noise was the worst part, Anita said.
“I’ve never heard anything like it. It just seemed to go on and on and on. It was so loud, I didn’t even realize all my windows had blown out,” she recalled.
Days later, a contractor surveyed the damage. His initial reaction was abrupt, Anita said.
“He walked in and said, ‘Oh, sweet Jesus,'” she recalled. “I thought for sure it could be fixed, but he said it had to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.”
For four weeks, the couple lived in a hotel, then moved into a house they own in Portland. As the Andersons were putting their lives back together, they were approached by Deputy Bill Goddard to see whether they would be interested in donating their battered house to the Fire Department.
“At first, we thought ‘No’, because it’s our home,” Anita recalled. “But then we thought, ‘Well, maybe some good can come of all this.'”
A rare opportunity
In the past 10 years, the Fire Department has trained on three donated homes.
“It used to happen a lot more often,” Robitaille said of houses donated for fire training, “but not anymore.”
In the two weeks that the Fire Department had the run of the Andersons’ home, they lit and fought 11 small fires, upstairs and down.
In addition to fire training, the department has also conducted drills in search and rescue, ladder use, ventilation and more.
“Training is so valuable. We’ve been very lucky to get this,” Robitaille said.
The house was also used to train nine dogs from all over the country, including California, Hawaii and Indiana. Once certified, the dogs can be used in fire investigations to find accelerants such as gasoline, Robitaille said.
Before the final fire was lit, the Andersons removed all hazardous materials, such as thermostats and compact fluorescent lamp bulbs, which contain mercury, to prevent pollution. Then, on Sunday, the fire was set on a single bale of hay in an upstairs bedroom, with no other accelerants, Goddard said. For the most part, the fire behaved as the company predicted.
Goddard stood near the front door Sunday and watched as the fire slowly worked its way down to the second floor, and he admired the craftsmanship of the home that was built by Ken Anderson — a developer — in 1984. The cement clapboard siding and other quality materials prevented the fire from spreading too quickly, Goddard said.
Sunday’s training mission was to protect a nearby barn from catching fire, but the house burned in such a controlled fashion that the barn required little attention.
Still, the training was valuable.
“You can’t learn this stuff with textbooks,” Goddard said.
Signs of progress
As the sun rose Sunday, neighbors began appearing on the Andersons’ lawn to watch the blaze. Some drank coffee. Others, such as 7-year-old Neena Panozzo and 8-year-old twins Luke and Will Pattison, shot video with handheld devices.
The twins’ mother, Liz Pattison, said the neighborhood is slowly returning to normal, but the blast left a lingering impression on her sons.
“The kids are playing outside again, but they’re still fairly shaken,” she said. “They’re scared to go upstairs by themselves, stuff like that. They’re very cautious. They stick together.”
At North Gables Condominiums, where the blast originated, progress is shifting into high gear. Earlier this month, demolition crews tore down three units that were damaged beyond repair and began removing debris, including that of 50 Gables Drive, which was instantly obliterated in the blast.
For two months after the explosion, the site remained largely untouched by demolition and construction crews to accommodate ongoing investigations by representatives from an insurance company, an appliance manufacturer and a utility company, said Steve Bailey, a board member on the condo association.
The explosion was fueled by propane, but the exact cause may never be known, Robitaille said.
Also unknown is the total cost of the disaster. At North Gables Condominiums, which included 14 units in seven duplexes, the cost of the four destroyed units is relatively straightforward, but tallying the damage elsewhere has been time-consuming for the association’s insurance company, Bailey said.
“Every unit has something that needs repaired, but the range is from some very minimal repairs to some pretty substantial ones,” he said.
There’s also no definite timeline for rebuilds or repairs, but reconstruction will begin later this month. When completed, the new units will look identical to the ones that were destroyed.
Reconstruction has already begun at 32 Balsam Lane. On Monday, just 24 hours after the house burned down, crews were already preparing the site for the Andersons’ new home, which will be completed in December, Anita said.
And, although Anita was apprehensive early Sunday morning, her feelings eased later that day. The fire was like a rebirth.
“I feel relieved,” she said. “Now we can move on to the next chapter.”