FARMINGTON, Maine — At first, Lisa Charles thought the explosion at LEAP Inc. was a tractor-trailer driving into her house.
More than half a mile away on High Street, Olivia Gampage, who moved to Farmington a month ago, said she thought the same thing. Her neighbor, Brenda William Drake, said it felt like her mobile home “jumped 6 inches off the ground.”
Charles, who works at LEAP, Inc. as a direct support professional, was at her home located diagonally from the nonprofit that serves adults with developmental disabilities when the building exploded after an apparent propane leak.
Her basement windows shattered, and her front door caved in. She ran outside, fearing for her neighbors — and her coworkers, whose condition she didn’t know.
“I can’t imagine what 9/11 must have been like, because this was so scary,” Charles said, standing amid piles of fluffy insulation blowing around her single-level home.
Officials said Farmington fire Capt. Michael Bell died in the blast and seven others — including six firefighters and the building’s maintenance manager — were injured. As first responders struggled to retrieve the wounded and clean up the aftermath of the blast heard and felt from miles away on Monday, people in the surrounding community dealt with confusion and fear.
Some, like Drake and Gampage, went to check on people they knew — in this case, a friend of Drake’s who lived nearby. They were joined by Christine Pike, Drake’s mother-in-law, and Christi Gross, Drake’s daughter, who had driven down from Livermore and Jay, respectively. Pike said she could feel the blast from her home 45 minutes away.
When they encountered the police blockade on High Street, the party navigated side yards and a local cemetery, pointing out the increasing amounts of insulation that carpeted lawns and gathered in piles along the street. As they got closer, they started picking up pieces of paper that included personal information from the nonprofit. They turned them into nearby workers, armed with plastic bags, picking up the trash.
As the morning wore on, Charles stayed outside watching the cleanup. She and her son were supposed to go to the fair Monday. They were waiting for the bus when the explosion happened — and the door nearly hit her son, Charles said.
“I thought a tractor-trailer smashed into my home. That’s how scary it was,” she said.
She said she could not believe it when she heard that Larry Lord, who manages maintenance for LEAP, was injured in the blast. Charles said Lord worked “tirelessly” for the residents, and the two of them talked frequently.
“The comedy banter back-and-forth always makes my day,” she said
Miles away in Madison, Randy Dean, who owns an 11-unit mobile home park behind LEAP, said he also feared for Lord, who he called a “fantastic man” who worked with Dean while LEAP was renovating their building.
Dean said he was alerted to the explosion by his tenants, many of whom were home when the blast occurred. The park is a mix of old and young tenants, mostly young families, he said. And although two units were blown apart, no residents were badly hurt, he said.
Patty Moody-D’Angelo, a disaster services member for the American Red Cross, said they had met with five families from the park during the day and were planning to talk to a sixth by late afternoon. The organization provided funds to help those families find food, clothing and lodging, but Moody-D’Angelo said said they were encouraging residents to reach out to family members in case their homes were uninhabitable for some time.
Outside of the cordoned-off section, locals waited for their chance to return home. Michael Anderson said he was home when the blast knocked pictures off his wall. Police wouldn’t let him return, he said, so he was waiting outside at Ron’s Market on Monday afternoon.
Near Ron’s, Matthew Turner of Phillips stood watch behind a music stand, trumpet in hand. A road technician for the state, he said he left work after hearing about the blast to lay low for the day. But he felt compelled to help, he said, shortly after finishing a rendition of “Come All Ye Faithful.” By noon, he had been at the street corner for two hours.
“I felt I should be out here, trying to smooth over a bad situation,” Turner said. “It’s not just thoughts and prayers.”