FARMINGTON, Maine — A 30-year member of Farmington Fire Rescue was killed Monday in an explosion at a facility that houses a disability support nonprofit.
The powerful, apparent gas-related blast at LEAP, Inc., shook the immediate community, shattering nearby windows and dispersing debris all over.
Fire Capt. Michael Bell, 68, was killed in the explosion, according to Maine's Public Safety Department spokesperson Steve McCausland. He was a part-time member of the department and among its seven in leadership roles.
Capt. Bell's brother Terry Bell, 62, the department's chief, was injured along with five other fire personnel, the fire marshal's office said. Also hurt: Capt. Timothy D. Hardy, 40; Capt. Scott Baxter, 37; Capt. Baxter's father, Firefighter Theodore Baxter, 64; Firefighter Joseph Hastings, 24; and Deputy Fire Chief Clyde Ross.
Larry Lord, a maintenance worker at the facility on Farmington Falls Road, was also injured. The 60-year-old was flown to Mass General Hospital in Boston.
Chief Bell, Capt. Hardy, Capt. Scott Baxter and Firefighter Hastings are full-time members of the fire department. In addition to the late Capt. Bell, Firefighter Theodore Baxter and Deputy Fire Chief Ross are part-time firefighters.
Ross was treated and released from Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, McCausland said. As of late Monday afternoon, the five others injured – Chief Bell, Hardy, Scott Baxter, Theodore Baxter and Hastings – were still being treated at Maine Medical Center in Portland for serious injuries.
McCausland said the fire marshal's office is working with Farmington's police and fire departments. Investigators will join federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to process the scene Tuesday. They'll work to pinpoint the source of the explosion, which is believed to be gas-related.
Firefighters had been called to the building along Route 2 at 8:07 a.m. for a propane smell in the building. The explosion took place minutes later.
The two-story building, with its recently opened addition, was flattened. Material from the building was scattered some 150-200 feet from its foundation.
The explosion was felt and/or heard in towns as far away as Wayne, Readfield and Turner, according to surrounding area witnesses.
LEAP, Inc., the nonprofit housed in the facility at 313 Farmington Falls Rd., serves those with disabilities. The building is LEAP's central office.
The mission listed on its site reads: "To empower people with disabilities to lead joyful lives with dignity, independence, and autonomy by providing comprehensive and individualized supports. The fundamental operating principle followed by LEAP in providing services is to strive for each individual’s fulfillment of: *Physical Well Being * Self Expression *Experiences of Joy."
In a statement, the organization said, "Our hearts go out to anyone injured or impacted today. There were many heroes whose actions today saved additional lives. Those heroes included first responders, LEAP staff and neighbors."
In a press conference Monday, seven Maine officials – including Gov. Janet Mills, Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck, Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols, State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas and McCausland – detailed what they knew.
Gov. Mills, a Farmington native and resident, said she knew Capt. Bell.
"We are a strong community, a very close knit community," she said. "We want to protect all other communities from this kind of thing happening, too, and make sure that we get to the cause and origin, exactly what happened and why.
"Our hearts go out to all the families of the injured and the deceased, and to all the people in this community, of which I am a proud member."
The governor's office later announced that Mills had directed all U.S. and state flags be immediately flown at half-staff through sunset Wednesday in honor of Bell, with an additional flag lowering directive to be set for his upcoming funeral.
Mills also released a statement video in which she asked everyone to keep the Bell family in their thoughts, and to give the next first responder you see a hug.
Prior to the press conference, Mills tweeted out the following statement:
"I am closely monitoring the explosion in Farmington and have instructed the Department of Public Safety to keep me apprised of the situation. Per protocol, the State Fire Marshal’s Office will thoroughly investigate the cause and origin of this devastating explosion," she said. "Our hearts go out to all those impacted by this tragedy, especially to the loved ones of the firefighter lost and others injured. I am grateful for the work of first responders who are at the scene and urge Maine people to avoid the area."
People were asked to avoid the area of Farmington Falls Road.
The Maine Department of Transportation issued a traffic alert detour for Route 2 shortly after 4 p.m., stating the road would be closed until at least Tuesday night.
Eastbound drivers can continue on or turn right onto Depot Street, also known as Route 156, in Dryden near the Wilton-Jay border. Westbound drivers can turn left from Route 41 or left from Philbrick Street off Route 2 onto Lucky Knowles Road, also Route 156, in Farmington Falls near the Farmington-Chesterville border.
Local traffic was rerouted to High Street and Maple Avenue.
Police said High Street would be opened from 7:30 p.m. Monday through 6 a.m. Tuesday, at which time it would be closed so the investigation could continue.
NEWS CENTER Maine spoke with Claire Maxim who lives about a mile from where the explosion occurred. She said there was a power surge and her home started shaking. She and her mother both work at LEAP Inc. While Maxim was home at the time of the blast, her mother was near the LEAP Inc. campus in her car. She said she is thankful her mother escaped injury.
Another witness, auto body shop owner Bob Rowe, told NEWS CENTER Maine the blast shook everything. He described it as being like a "nuclear explosion."
"It shook the building, it shook the parking lot, it shook the car that my son was sitting in," Rowe said. "Um, very scary stuff."
Emily-Anne Bacon said she lives right behind the site of the explosion, and shared with NEWS CENTER Maine her viewpoint of the ruin.
Capt. Bell's body was escorted by procession 50 miles south along Route 26 from Farmington to the state Medical Examiner's Office in Augusta.
Following tradition, several agencies were by his side the whole way.
Draped in an American flag, Bell's body was taken inside the Medical Examiner's Office building by a number of state troopers. Many fellow Maine first responders stood beside, near and far, saluting the fire captain in unison.
A group of firefighters from Auburn, Augusta, Clinton, Fairfield, Skowhegan and Waterville will watch over Bell's body overnight Monday into Tuesday.
An additional procession is planned for Tuesday to return Bell home. According to a post from the Farmington Police Department, his body will leave Augusta around 9 a.m. and is scheduled to arrive back in Farmington at about 10 a.m.
The procession will come down High Street onto Broadway and back down to Main Street to the Farmington Fire Department, the post said.
Community members wishing to view the procession are asked to remain off the actual roadway and stand a safe distance away. All are encouraged to attend.
The United Way of the Tri-Valley Area has set up a LEAP Explosion Fund. Its executive director says money can be sent to P.O. Box 126 Farmington, ME 04938, or donations can be dropped off at 218 Fairbanks Road, Farmington, ME.
According to the University of Maine at Farmington's Campus Safety Department, the school's campus was expected to remain open Monday.