February 21, 2020
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Maine fire marshal confirms Farmington blast was caused by bollard severing gas line

Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal via AP
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal via AP
An aerial view of the devastation after an explosion at the Life Enrichment Advancing People (LEAP) building, in Farmington, Maine killed one firefighter and injured multiple other people, on Monday morning September 16, 2019.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A post installed by a Manchester company six days before severed a gas line and caused the leak that spurred the September explosion in Farmington that killed one firefighter, injured others and destroyed a nonprofit’s building.

The finding confirms the account of a daughter of Farmington fire Capt. Michael Bell, who died in the blast while investigating the propane leak at LEAP Inc., after 400 gallons of propane leaked from an outdoor tank. The blast injured seven other people, destroyed nearby homes and scattered debris for more than a mile.

Lawyers representing the Bell family, Michael Bell’s estate and four other injured firefighters and Larry Lord, the LEAP maintenance manager hailed a hero for evacuating the building beforehand still hospitalized in Boston, said they are still seeking the official report on the blast.

Steven Silin of the Lewiston firm of Berman & Simmons, who represents the Lord family, said in a statement the state’s Friday release of details was “by design limited in its breadth” and raised questions about whether a fuel company filled the tank without seeing why it was empty.

In a news release outlining the main finding of the fire marshal’s investigation, Stephen McCausland, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said six days before the blast, multiple 10-foot posts had been drilled into the ground about 5 feet away from the building in the parking lot to protect an outdoor air conditioning unit next to the building.

A propane line was buried about 3 feet underneath the parking lot and connected the propane tank to the building. While the line was covered in a protective sleeve, McCausland said it was pierced by an auger head that allowed one of the posts to be drilled into the ground.

Courtesy of Maine Department of Public Safety
Courtesy of Maine Department of Public Safety
A September explosion caused by a propane leak that leveled a Farmington nonprofit, killed one firefighters and injured seven other people was triggered by a bollard auger head that severed a propane line. The bollard and pierced propane line are shown here.

The tank had been filled the Friday before the explosion on Monday, Sept. 16, when Lord reported the smell of gas early in the morning. McCausland said the ignition source of the blast could not be determined, but it could have been caused by electricity disruption, a light switch, a furnace or static.

The posts were installed by Techno Post of Maine, a Manchester-based company among four being investigated by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The company was found to have possibly violated “Dig Safe” laws by Maine Public Utilities Commission staff in December. The company could face $1,000 fine for not alerting the regulator of its intention to dig and not properly marking the dig area, according to a notice from commission investigator Barry Truman.

Techno Post had 30 days to contest the finding. A spokesman for the commission said Friday it was working on a consent agreement with the company to resolve the violation notice. Requests for comment to Techno Post were not returned.

McCausland’s news release was the only state account of the fire marshal’s investigation that was released Friday, when the Bangor Daily News filed a public records request for the report from the fire marshal’s office.

Silin, the Lord family’s attorney, noted that McCausland’s release cited the post installation as the cause but “does not address the gas supplier’s decision to refill the emptied tank without first identifying why it was empty as required by code.” The South Paris-based fuel company C.N. Brown filled the tank and is also being investigated by OSHA. The company declined comment.

“It is preliminary to state whether suit will be necessary in order for all those responsible to be held accountable for the grievous harm that resulted from this tragic event,” Silin said.

Walter McKee, an Augusta-based lawyer representing the Bell family, Michael Bell’s estate and the injured firefighters in the event they seek civil claims in the future, said in an email the full report will allow the families to “make some sense of how this terrible tragedy happened, and most importantly what can be done so that it never ever happens again.”

 


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