CARIBOU, Maine — One of the young victims set the fire that killed his family of four in Caribou on Thursday morning, according to the state fire marshal’s office.
Fire investigators determined that 3-year-old Trenton Delisle, who would have turned 4 next week, set fire to items in the living room of the family’s mobile home, according to Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland.
The boy died along with his 28-year-old mother, Norma Skidgel, and his twin 2-year-old brother and sister, Mason and Madison Delisle.
The youngster also had set fire to a Bible inside the kitchen stove earlier that morning, McCausland said in a news release issued Friday afternoon.
That first fire was extinguished by Skidgel’s sister Amy Bouchard, who also lived with her two sons in the trailer in the West Gate Villa mobile home park.
Bouchard left the mobile home briefly to take one of her sons down the road to the school bus stop, and the trailer was engulfed in heavy smoke and fire before she returned. Bouchard’s other son had spent the night elsewhere, McCausland said.
Investigators also say there were no working smoke detectors inside — only one was found and the battery had been removed. The rear door to the mobile home also had been blocked by a large piece of Styrofoam, likely for insulation.
The four victims were found in the back bedroom of the mobile home.
As of Friday afternoon, the state medical examiner’s office had determined that three of the four died of smoke inhalation. An autopsy on the fourth victim had not yet been completed.
In the wake of what is being called the deadliest fire in Caribou’s history, friends, family and members of the community are trying to come to terms with the loss.
Shannon Marie Gibson of Madawaska remembers as a little girl begging her mother to let her spend time with her older cousin Norma Skidgel.
“Norma used to do my hair,” Gibson said Friday afternoon. “She would babysit me and we would sit and she’d cornrow my hair and she would let me do makeup all the time when no one else would let me.”
Gibson, 20, said she was on her way to work in Fort Kent when her mother called to tell her about the fire.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” she said.
Work and schedules kept the cousins apart in recent years and Gibson said she had not spent much time with the twin siblings, but remembers Trenton as “the hyper happy baby” who was into everything and “always happy.”
Gibson also remembers the three younger children playing with Bouchard’s 11- and 9-year-old sons.
“They were always playing outside and loved the outdoors,” Gibson said. “Cartoons were their thing, too, but they liked the outdoors better than the indoors.”
Bouchard, according to Gibson, saw the fire from the nearby school bus stop and rushed back to the residence. Bouchard was taken from the scene to Cary Medical Center in Caribou, where she was treated for smoke inhalation.
“That was her sister,” Gibson said softly. “She tried to save them.
“We are all taking this hard,” the cousin added. “But we got to go one day at a time [and] it is a little better today. We are thinking about the good memories.”
Norma Skidgel was a good mom trying to do the best she could for her children, Gibson said.
“She was really a nice person and always there for anybody who needed help or ready to listen to anyone who needed it,” the cousin said. “She was a very outgoing person.”
Gibson also plans to seek additional local donations for the family and said the Caribou American Legion is hosting a fundraiser bingo tournament Saturday evening.
As the community tries to come to terms with the fire, residents are reaching out to help the family and one another.
“The family is really trying to process what has happened,” Joyce Knorr, community manager for the American Red Cross in northern and eastern Maine, said Friday morning. “We at the Red Cross are trying to be a bridge from this disaster to recovery.”
Knorr said the agency is working with the surviving family members to determine their immediate and long-term needs.
The Red Cross has put together a “condolence team” for the family, Knorr said, and is working to offer any needed financial support for funeral costs.
“We are working with the survivors,” Knorr said. “There are sheltering provisions and a need for clothing, food and medical supplies as well as extensive emotional support.”
For the time being, Amy Bouchard and her children are staying at the Caribou Inn and Convention Center, where her sister Norma had worked for a brief time and their mother, Yvonne Skidgel, has been a longtime employee in the housekeeping department.
“This was an awful tragedy, Yvonne is one of our own and we are all saddened by what happened,” Betty Hersey, manager at the Caribou Inn and Convention Center, said Friday. “The kids were so little and we feel for the whole family.”
Especially hard hit, Hersey said, were the members of the housekeeping staff.
“They are a very close-knit group,” she said. “They are taking it the hardest.”
Hersey confirmed Bouchard and her two children are staying at the inn for a few days.
“Yvonne is part of our family here and we want to help her out as much as we can,” Hersey said, adding she has not spoken directly with Yvonne Skidgel since the fire.
“It’s bad enough when something like this happens, especially with three little ones,” Hersey said. “Such a young age, you just can’t fathom it and can’t help to think how horrible it is.”
Kevin Simmons, owner of the Caribou and Presque Isle Inn and Convention Centers, has opened the Yvonne Skidgel Family Fire Fund at TD Bank, 680 Main St. in Presque Isle.
He also is accepting donations on behalf of the family at both inns.
“This has been tragic,” Simmons said.
Bouchard’s two sons attend school in Caribou and on Thursday classmates already on their school bus witnessed the start of the fire as the bus made its regular stop at the trailer park.
“Our bus driver did indicate the students saw a fire,” RSU 39 Superintendent Susan White said Friday.
The driver, Mark Mazerolle, immediately calmed the students on the bus, some of whom wanted to go back home, White said.
“Mr. Mazerolle got the students boarded quickly and told them they would be safe at school,” White said. “He then got on the phone to our transportation director and we were able to have adults waiting for the bus so when those children got off the bus, they were greeted by an adult.”
The school’s principal, guidance staff and some teachers met the bus to calm any upset students, she said.
“I can’t say enough about our staff,” White said. “They made sure these kids were OK.”
On Friday, White said she had talked to administrators at the school, who indicated the students were doing well.
“Kids who expressed the need are getting support,” she said. “The work that the staff did yesterday making a bad situation as normal as possible is making today a pretty good day.”
But that in no way takes away from the tragic loss, White said.
“It is a terrible thing [and] a huge loss to our community,” she said. “It is always sad when lives are lost and we hope we can be a support for these kids, and I am sure we will come together and reach out to help the family.”
The communitywide shared grief is natural in the wake of the deadliest fire in Caribou’s history, Knorr said.
“There is a sense of shock and numbness, a surrealness,” she said. “But this community is rallying as always and people want to know what they can do to help.”
Among those in the community hardest hit are the fire and ambulance crews who were first on the scene.
Caribou Fire Chief Scott Susi said Friday he had scheduled a mandatory gathering that night for his firefighters to meet with a critical incident stress debriefing team.
“This is very important,” Susi said. “Even for the members who don’t think they were affected. A lot of them saw a lot of images yesterday and they need to put that all out on the table.”
Susi said his men wouldn’t have to say a word at the meeting, but he did want them to listen and not hold anything back if they felt the need to talk.
“You train and train for something like this,” he said. “You hope it never happens but when it does, you have to deal with it.”
The fact three of the victims were small children was having a particularly hard impact, Susi said.
“Children are the worst,” he said. “They are the ones who often look to us for guidance.”
At the same time, Susi said he is looking out for his men’s emotional well-being.
“This is our house,” he said. “These guys are my number one priority.”
On Friday state Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said juvenile firestarters are “a huge problem in Maine” but there are resources available to counsel, educate and treat children fascinated by fire.
Thomas said a study by his office of fires in Maine from 2001 to 2011 showed that 2,531 were started by juveniles. Those fires caused 14 deaths, 115 injuries and damage of more than $40 million.
He said 276 fires were started by juveniles last year in Maine. No numbers were available for 2014.
Thomas said parents and guardians who have concerns about a child’s fascination with fire can get help by calling their local fire departments or the state fire marshal’s office in Augusta.
“Help is available throughout Maine; all you have to do is ask,” Thomas said.