The Sept. 16 gas explosion at a nonprofit in Farmington shocked that community and our entire state. The blast, which claimed the life of fire Capt. Michael Bell and injured several others, was recently named Maine’s top story of 2019 in a vote conducted by the Associated Press.
There is little doubt that this story of tragedy and heroism had tremendous impact in Farmington and across Maine this year. And that impact is sure to be felt for years to come as families and communities look to heal and find a n ew sense of normal, investigators continue searching for answers and legislators consider ways to help prevent such disasters and make sure first responders have the resources they need.
And while Farmington has been able to welcome home each of its injured firefighters, one important homecoming has yet to take place. Larry Lord, the maintenance worker lauded as a hero for alerting others to the smell of gas and helping to evacuate them, remains in a Massachusetts hospital. He was downgraded from fair to serious condition earlier this week, after months spent recovering from critical injuries sustained in the blast.
More than a month ago, Farmington Assistant Fire Chief Tim Hardy indicated the community is “not going to be complete until we can get Larry Lord home,” according to WMTW.
As the healing continues, ongoing support for the Farmington community seems to be making a difference. For example, the news that two members of the department will participate in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, on New Year’s Day offers a hopeful message amidst the heartbreak and challenges.
Thanks to the funding of two groups, the Maine Odd Fellows and Rebekah’s organization, Farmington firefighters Steve Bunker and Patty Cormier will be part of the festivities, including a parade float called “First Responders Bring Hope.” That sounds spot on to us.
“Out of our tragedy, there have been so many blessings, so much caring and good will has poured in,” Bunker said, according to News Center Maine. “The generosity of the Odd Fellows and Rebekah’s organization is a real morale booster to our department.”
“It’s a real honor to represent such a great group of firefighters,” Cormier said. “We wish they could all be there with us.”
One of the immediate, lasting lessons from the blast in Farmington is the way it has reemphasized the bravery and dedication that first responders display every day. It was also inspiring to see other departments from around the state, including Bangor, help Farmington with coverage following the explosion.
“Departments have come forward voluntarily. We didn’t have to ask,” Farmington Town Manager Richard Davis said at the time.
The staffing challenges the department faced afterward brought additional and necessary attention to the personnel challenges facing departments around Maine with a dropping number of firefighters. Departments cannot only rely on help from each other, they also need more help from state policymakers in the efforts to recruit, train and retain first responders.
Multiple state and federal investigations continue in the effort to understand more about what happened in Farmington that September morning. The explosion has been attributed to a leaking propane line under the parking lot of the nonprofit, LEAP Inc., but the cause of the leak has yet to be released. The Bell family has also hired a lawyer to investigate the circumstances. Answers could still be months away.
Unfortunately, answers and action may not always move as swiftly as the first responders who serve our communities day in and day out. But like those first responders, the answers and actions are absolutely critical after an event like this.