FARMINGTON – The investigation into Monday’s explosion at 313 Farmington Falls Road is continuing this week, as state and federal officials have begun picking through the debris at the scene.
Local and state officials provided a new briefing Tuesday afternoon, updating the media on the investigation, the injured firefighters and new ways for people to support the department and others impacted by the blast that leveled an office building occupied by LEAP Inc. Monday morning.
As previously reported, at approximately 8:07 a.m. Monday, Farmington Fire Rescue responded to the newly-expanded, two-story LEAP Inc. building on the Farmington Falls Road after employees reported smelling propane. Within minutes after the firefighters arrived at the scene to investigate, the building exploded. One firefighter, Capt. Michael Bell, 68, was killed in the blast and several others were injured, as well as the building’s maintenance supervisor Larry Lord.
Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck went out of his way at Tuesday’s press conference to recognize Lord for evacuating a dozen or so employees from the building prior to the explosion.
“Without his quick actions, I think it would have been a much more horrific tragedy,” Peck said.
Also injured in Monday’s explosion was: Fire Chief Terry Bell, 62; Capt. Timothy D. Hardy, 40; Capt. Scott Baxter, 37; Firefighter Theodore Baxter, 64; and Firefighter Joseph Hastings, 24. All five are receiving treatment at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Bell, Scott and Theodore Baxter are in critical condition, while Hastings and Hardy are in fair condition. Another firefighter, Deputy Chief Clyde Ross, was transported to Franklin Memorial Hospital, treated and released.
Sgt. Ken Grimes of the State Fire Marshal’s Office said that state investigators and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – which had been tapped to provide additional manpower – had spent Monday conducting interviews with people at the scene and gathering information about the two-story building. On Tuesday, the investigators have worked mostly with the scene, Grimes said, including some excavation of the site. Grimes described the investigation as a “slow, methodical process that is going to take some time.”
“At this particular time, we anticipate to have an answer about what went on, hopefully by the end of the week,” Grimes said.
Grimes said that he did not have answers as to what specifically caused the explosion, which he said represented the worst propane gas-involved incident he had ever worked on, in terms of structural damage. He said that investigators were “progressing well” with forensics.
Portions of the scene would be released by investigators as time went on, Grimes said, noting that Farmington Fire Rescue’s Tower 3 truck was released Tuesday morning. Some firefighting gear was also recovered by investigators, who returned it to the department.
At the end of each day, Grimes said, investigators would evaluate whether the perimeter of the scene could be reduced. That process will determine when the end of High Street and the Farmington Falls Road could be reopened to the public.
Farmington Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Tim Hardy, the department’s acting chief, said that the department’s first and foremost concern was for those injured in the explosion as well as the family of Capt. Bell. Bell’s body was returned to Farmington from Augusta by a procession of first responder vehicles, led by the Maine State Police honor guard this morning.
“I just like to assure the community of Farmington that we are still here providing you with services,” Hardy said, noting that Farmington was working with its mutual aid partners as well as departments from across the state. “We will recover from this; we will eventually be back to full staff.”
Hardy noted that he had been on the department for 41 years, coming on almost the same time as Chief Terry Bell, who has 42 years with the department. Capt. Michael Bell was on the department for 30 years.
“We’ve all come up through the ranks together as a rookie firefighter and worked our way up,” Hardy said. “It’s a brotherhood, it’s a family.”
With Chief Bell injured, Hardy worked to direct the department’s response to the explosion Monday. He said that he had been in constant contact with his family, including son Capt. Timothy Hardy, and that his family had told him that he was where he needed to be. Hardy said that he intended to visit his son and the other injured firefighters on Wednesday.
Hardy said that Farmington’s mutual aid partners would be meeting Tuesday evening to discuss the possibility of additional coverage support for the area.
Hardy, Peck and Town Manager Richard Davis all said that they had been overwhelmed by the show of support from the town in the wake of Monday’s disaster. Food, beverages and emotional support had poured in for the department and other first responders, Davis said.
The town had received inquiries regarding ways to support the firefighters and others impacted by the explosion, the town manager said. Monetary support can be donated through the Farmington Firemen’s Benevolent Association, to benefit the firefighters’ families; as well as the Farmington Disaster Relief Fund, with that money going to help those displaced by the explosion – as many as 30 residents – and others impacted by the incident. Both funds are through Franklin Savings Bank.