Fire investigators and relatives of one of the victims look around the scene of a devastating explosion and fire on Darci Lane that claimed the life of one person and left two others in the hospital with critical injuries. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

MONTVILLE, Maine — Three men have died after a gas explosion and fire Wednesday afternoon leveled a residence on Darci Lane in Montville.

First responders found Rocco Taddeo, 88, of Montville, dead inside the home. Homeowner Stuart Nichols, 74, and a relative of his, 78-year-old Robert Gorham of Buxton, were found outside the house, where they’d been thrown with the force of the explosion into some nearby trees, according to the Maine State Police. Both Nichols and Gorham were taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland to be treated for their injuries, but later died at the hospital.

Early results of the investigation have established that one of Nichols’ propane-powered appliances had a gas leak, Shannon Moss, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said. A recently acquired used propane-powered cooking stove in the kitchen was among several propane-powered appliances in the small log cabin.

When the explosion and fire happened at about 3:30 p.m., Taddeo had been trying to light the stove, Moss said.

The disaster took place at the end of a quiet dirt road in center Montville, an area where the neighbors seemed to all know each other. Nichols, a Vietnam-era veteran, lived in the log cabin and had a large garage on the end of Darci Lane. But both buildings were leveled Wednesday and vehicles parked in the yard were rendered charred metal heaps. Scorched trees surrounded where the homestead had stood.

A Darci Lane neighbor who was one of the first on the scene said that the fire was like nothing he had ever seen before or could have imagined.

“It wasn’t like a Bruce Willis action movie. It was beyond that,” the neighbor, who gave his name as Jimmy Edward, said. “It was an absolute inferno.”

On Thursday morning, investigators with the Maine Fuel Board and the state fire marshal’s office took photos of the charred rubble that remained. Family members of one of the victims stood under an umbrella in the chilly rain, speaking quietly with investigators and looking at the scene of destruction around them.

According to the Montville tax maps, Nichols owned 4-acre property that the town assessed at $47,500 in 2021. 

Edward’s home is separated from where Nichols’ house stood by a small group of trees. He was on his way home when he noticed smoke coming from somewhere in the vicinity of Darci Lane.

“Right away, you knew it wasn’t someone burning leaves,” he said. “It was a structure.”

He rushed towards his neighbor’s burning house. As he approached, he saw another man he thought was a volunteer firefighter also come running to help. He remembers the man was driving a Maine Energy truck, although an employee of Maine Energy said later Thursday that the company didn’t know of anything like that happening.

“He’s running towards the inferno, which looked like a rocket ship upside down,” Edward said. “It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. When it went off, it went off.”

The Montville Fire Department was assisted by firefighters from Liberty, Searsmont, Freedom, Morrill, Troy, Unity, Brooks, Washington and Palermo. Ambulance services from Liberty, Searsmont and Unity provided medical assistance.

Edward said that it’s a shame that municipalities are having a hard time finding enough volunteer firefighters to staff their fire departments.

“You don’t think you’ll need them, until it’s your house,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced the veteran status of Stuart Nichols. Nichols served during the Vietnam era.