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FARMINGTON, Maine — For generations, the Bell family has fought to keep Farmington safe from fires.
Farmington fire Capt. Michael Bell, 68, was investigating a propane gas leak at LEAP Inc. in Farmington Monday morning when the building exploded, killing Bell and wounding several other firefighters and a LEAP maintenance supervisor. His brother, Farmington fire Chief Terry Bell, was also critically injured in the blast.
The Bell brothers were the most recent men of their family to dedicate their time to the volunteer Farmington Fire Department. Michael Bell served for 30 years before he died. Terry Bell has been on the force for 42 years, Deputy Chief Tim Hardy said. Their father, the late Jack Bell, served for 49 years.
As the community worked to make sense of the aftermath of the explosion, that dedication came up time and time again.
“We all came up through the ranks together,” Hardy, who is leading the department on an interim basis, said at a Tuesday news conference.
Bell seemed to have followed in his father’s footsteps. Those who knew Michael Bell described him as a quiet, friendly man who was dedicated to both his family and the dual family businesses of firefighting and plumbing.
After Jack Bell’s 2009 death at age 80, Hardy was quoted in the Sun Journal as saying the elder Bell was a “mild-mannered” man who never raised his voice, but “when he spoke, you listened.” Both Jack and Michael worked their way up to a captain position in the department.
Farmington attorney Paul Mills, the brother of Gov. Janet Mills, said Michael Bell was his local plumber for years, but was scaling back his work before he died in order to spend more time with his family.
“He seemed to be very devoted, very dedicated, friendly, good, a cordial person,” he said. “But at the same token, professionally conscientious, prompt, responsive.”
Mills and Bell also served together on the town’s parking committee. Bell was always candid about his thoughts, Mills said, and he “would tell you honestly how he felt and why he felt something.”
A procession of emergency vehicles escorted Bell’s body back from Augusta on Tuesday morning, past the Farmington fairgrounds and downtown to Wiles Funeral Home, located next to the fire station where Bell spent so much time.
Community members lined the route, many of them holding American flags. Dozens of police, fire and rescue departments from around the state guided Bell home, including those from neighboring towns and as far away as Liberty and Augusta.
Ray Smith, a retired firefighter from Portland who now works for a fire apparatus company, said he had come to Farmington to talk about a new fire engine with the department. After working with the Bell brothers for years, he said he had to attend the procession as well.
“He was an outstanding guy and was well-respected within the community,” Smith said. “In a small town like this, something so devastating is going to take a while to heal from.”