FARMINGTON, Maine — A Farmington fire captain died and his brother, the town’s fire chief, was among seven others injured in an explosion Monday morning on Route 2 that leveled the home of a nonprofit, destroyed nearby homes and scattered debris for more than a mile.
Capt. Michael Bell, 68, who had worked for the department for 30 years, was killed, according to Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland. Farmington police Chief Jack Peck Jr. told reporters on Monday that Bell died in the explosion after the department responded to an apparent propane leak at the two-story building housing LEAP Inc., which serves adults with developmental disabilities.
Six other Farmington firefighters, including Bell’s brother, Chief Terry Bell; Capt. Timothy Hardy; Capt. Scott Baxter; his father, Theodore Baxter; and Joseph Hastings, were injured alongside 60-year-old Larry Lord of Jay, the building’s maintenance manager. Deputy Fire Chief Clyde Ross was treated and released at a Farmington hospital.
All other living victims of the blast were airlifted to other hospitals from Farmington. Maine Medical Center said it admitted five victims by Monday afternoon, with four in intensive care. Lord was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Town Manager Richard Davis said he knew Michael Bell to be a “quiet, unassuming man” who was deeply involved in the local firefighting community. Scott Landry, a Farmington selectman, state representative and board member of LEAP, said he was upset by the loss and injuries to the firefighters and Lord, calling Michael Bell a “just fantastic guy.”
Almost 11 hours after the blast, members of the community gathered at the Old South Church in Farmington to pray for everyone affected during a silent candlelight vigil.
The Rev. Margaret Proctor of the Congregational church said the community had survived tragedies before, but “people came together then,” she said, “and may it be so here.”
“This town will rebuild both physically and spiritually, and come together,” she said.
The explosion happened at 313 Farmington Falls Road — also known as Route 2 — around 8:30 a.m. Monday. The powerful explosion could be heard from as far away as Livermore, which is more than 30 miles southwest. Closer to the scene, insulation from the building piled up like snow and papers with personal information were scattered on yards.
Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols, who was one of the first responders to the explosion scene, likened it to places he saw as a security adviser during the Iraq war.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for 35 years. I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life except overseas,” Nichols said. “It was horrible.”
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Several nearby buildings were damaged. Randy Dean, who owns a mobile home park directly behind the site, said two of the 11 homes there were destroyed, 10 are uninhabitable and all 26 of his tenants are displaced. He said none was seriously injured.
Allen Rowe, who owns an automotive repair shop less than a mile from the site, showed a reporter a crack in a cinder block building that he said was caused by the explosion. He said power lines were “dancing all over the place” and his building briefly lost power.
Landry said Lord smelled the leak and hustled people out of the building before being injured in the blast. Landry called Lord a hero.
“He’s the main man keeping things together over there,” Landry said.
Fire investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office will be joined by fire investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and will begin processing the scene Tuesday to pinpoint the source of the explosion, McCausland said.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this to protect this community, all other communities and make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Gov. Janet Mills, a Farmington resident, said at a news conference.
It was the first on-the-job death of a Maine firefighter since March 1 when Berwick fire Capt. Joel Barnes died while responding to an apartment fire in that town. His death came three years after East Millinocket fire Capt. Peter Larlee died from cardiac arrest while on duty at the town’s public safety building.
The Farmington Fair was closed Monday due to the explosion. Mills also ordered U.S. and Maine flags to immediately be lowered to half-staff through Wednesday evening.
BDN writers Lori Valigra and Christopher Burns contributed to this report.