Farmington firefighter’s family hires lawyer to probe the blast that killed him

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
The procession carrying the body of Farmington Fire Capt. Michael Bell goes through downtown Farmington in September. His family has hired an attorney to investigate the causes of the blast that killed him, but reports from at least two agencies on the causes may not come until spring.
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Michael Bell, 68, was killed in the explosion that leveled the nonprofit LEAP Inc. in Farmington and seriously injured another six firefighters and the building's maintenance supervisor.
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FARMINGTON, Maine — The family of the late Farmington fire Capt. Michael Bell has hired an attorney to investigate the circumstances of the September explosion that killed him, but they have to wait until spring to get definitive answers.

Bell, 68, was killed in the explosion that leveled the two-story building housing the nonprofit LEAP Inc. in Farmington and seriously injured another six firefighters and Larry Lord of Jay, the maintenance supervisor who has been hailed as a hero for evacuating the building just before the blast.

The explosion was attributed to leaking propane line under the organization’s paved parking lot that drained 400 gallons of propane from the tank from Sept. 13 to Sept. 16, the day of the explosion. The cause of the leak, however, has not been released.

A representative for the Bell family said Tuesday it has hired attorney Steven Silin of the Lewiston personal injury firm Berman & Simmons to investigate the blast, adding legal action is “not ruled out,” but that the family will wait until the state fire marshal’s office completes its investigation and issues a final report before making any decisions.

J.P. Fortier | Farmington Fire Department via AP
J.P. Fortier | Farmington Fire Department via AP
In this May 2010 photo provided the Farmington Fire Department, Farmington fire Capt. Michael Bell watches in Farmington. Bell, 68, was killed in a propane blast on Sept. 16, 2019, that flattened a building and damaged 11 nearby mobile homes.

They may not get answers for months, as several local and national agencies are still investigating the explosion under routine procedures.

That includes the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which opened investigations into LEAP and three companies in the days following the explosion. The Maine Department of Labor is looking into the Farmington Fire Department. Both agencies have until March to complete their investigations, according to department spokespeople.

“The family still is waiting to find out how this terrible tragedy could have occurred, and ultimately find out who was responsible and, if warranted, hold those responsible accountable,” Silin said in a statement.

Silin said the Bells are working with “several experts,” including a specialist in propane gas explosions, to gain a “complete understanding” of the incident. He said the family is satisfied with the investigation and communication to date.

The OSHA investigation of LEAP deals with whether it was following federal health and safety standards when the explosion occurred, said Ted Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the agency that looks at private sector and federal workplace incidents. The Maine Department of Labor looks at those incidents in the public sector.

OSHA also has open investigations into the companies C.N. Brown — which filled the propane tank before the blast, according to the Sun Journal — Farmington-based Cornerstone Plumbing & Heating and Manchester-based Techno Metal Post, which makes building foundation posts.

Speaking generally, Fitzgerald said investigations into those types of companies usually deal with “alleged hazardous working conditions” at a worksite and could stem from complaints, referrals or accidents. The site location linked to those investigations is listed as 313 Farmington Road, LEAP’s address.

LEAP Executive Director Darryl Wood declined to comment on the probes, as did C.N. Brown and Techno Metal Post. Cornerstone did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting comment. The building that exploded had been extensively renovated last year.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is also investigating Bell’s death, said spokesperson Stephanie Stevens, a process that can include conducting interviews and reviewing dispatch records and department standard operating procedures.

 

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the connection consulting firm Giving Strong has with the Bell family. It works with Berman & Simmons directly.


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