BATH – Dale Fussell was known by her friends and family as a generous soul, someone who lived frugally but was eager to help others and cheer them up when they were down.
By lunchtime every Tuesday, she would be helping to prepare the evening meal at The Neighborhood Cafe, a soup kitchen run by the United Church of Christ on Congress Avenue, near her home at 29 Bluff Road.
“She knew when a friend needed a shoulder to cry on. She knew when it was time to start singing and liven people up and say, ‘Hey, things could be worse in your life,”‘ said her friend Patti Silva.
Fussell, 64, was killed before dawn Tuesday when her building in the Atlantic Townhouse Apartments complex was demolished by an explosion.
The state Fire Marshal’s Office determined that the blast at 5 a.m. was caused by a propane gas leak at 31 Bluff Road, the adjacent apartment in the duplex.
Investigators, who picked through the rubble all day Tuesday, think that a coupling between the exterior supply pipes and an interior hose that fed the heating unit loosened, so gas escaped, said Fire Marshal Joe Thomas.
The connection apparently was broken when the heater was jostled or moved, even though it was bolted to the walls.
The propane gas, which is heavier than air, would have leaked into a space a few inches deep between the interior and exterior walls, then down into the crawl space beneath the apartments, Thomas said. There is no way to know how long the gas was leaking, he said.
The building’s 1939 construction would have allowed air movement to dissipate the gas, he said, but investigators surmise that the blizzard that dumped more than 2 feet of snow on Bath during the weekend could have sealed off the crawl space beneath the single-story building, allowing gas to accumulate.
An ignition source — possibly electrical — created an explosion that flattened the building, sent debris flying more than 200 yards and ignited an intense fire in the remains of the structure.
A memorial was created at the site Wednesday, with flowers, a card made by neighborhood children and a cross made from fence pickets.
The state Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Wednesday that the person who died in the explosion was Fussell, who lived at 29 Bluff Road for many years.
Fussell was remembered fondly by residents of the neighborhood, which came as no surprise to her daughter, Sondra Wilson, who lives in Virginia.
“She loved being around people. … She could never meet a stranger, ever,” Wilson said.
Wilson talked to her mother the day before she died.
They talked about food, as they always did, about Wilson’s plans to graduate from college this summer, and about her husband, whom Wilson married in September.
They talked about Wilson’s grown son, whom Fussell helped to raise.
Wilson, one of four children, said Fussell was raised in Bath.
“Even though she didn’t have the means herself, she was always willing to give of herself to others in need,” Wilson said.
Silva, Fussell’s friend, said Fussell offered sanctuary for some people in the neighborhood.
“She would open her door: ‘I have food. I have a bed. I have a sofa. I have a place you can stay that’s safe, no questions asked,”‘ Silva said.
Silva said she met Fussell at a food pantry and encouraged her to volunteer at The Neighborhood Cafe. Fussell became a reliable regular, sometimes showing up with two grocery bags full of items she had baked the previous weekend.
And she was fun.
“I’d bring in Motown CDs and a CD player,” Silva said. “In the middle of cutting vegetables, we would just start dancing. It was the funniest thing.”
Silva heard about the explosion as she drove to Fussell’s home to give her a ride to The Neighborhood Cafe. She couldn’t get through because of the firetrucks and police cars.
“I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Please don’t let it be near her, and if it is near her, don’t let her be hurt,”‘ Silva said.
When Fussell didn’t show up to volunteer and didn’t answer her telephone, Silva got worried. Then she learned that it was Fussell’s home that had exploded.
Silva said that Fussell, who was disabled, had been feeling good about herself. She had saved money and last year she bought a bright red compact car that made her very proud. The car appeared to sustain little damage in the blast, even though others nearby were destroyed.
Fussell also was saving to buy her own home.
“She said she was almost there,” Silva said. “That’s why it was so sad this happened. She was so close to getting her own place.”
Kenneth Hooper, who lived next to Fussell at 31 Bluff Road, left home for work at the nearby McDonald’s restaurant a half-hour before the explosion.
The managers of the Atlantic Townhouse Apartments said Wednesday that they had not heard from him and it was unclear where he was staying. A manager at McDonald’s said Hooper did not want to speak to reporters.
The propane heating system for the Atlantic Townhouse Apartments was installed in 2000, when Keystone Management Co. took over management of the 144 units owned by Eaton Tarbell LLC.
Technicians from the management company and Irving Oil, which supplies the complex’s propane, worked through the night Tuesday, checking the gas supplies to all of the other apartments for leaks, said state officials and the management company.
Chris Smith said firefighters visited his apartment to make sure his heater was working properly. That gave him some peace of mind, though like many residents, he has new skepticism about propane.
Tasha Dyer, who works for Keystone Management, said the company plans to replace the connectors between the supply pipes and the heaters in all of the units. “This will never happen again,” she said.
Lisa King, who lives two buildings away from the one that exploded, said she had trouble sleeping Tuesday night and is nervous about the propane.
She said she prefers to use her electric fireplace to heat her two-story unit and it doesn’t add significantly to her electricity bill.
But at night, she relies on a propane heater, a Rinnai Energy Saver 1004F.
The buildings on either side of the blast site remained vacant Wednesday. Crews planned to repair one, where glass was blown into the kitchen. The building to the south sustained structural damage and may have to be rebuilt.
Keystone Management had received 42 calls complaining of no heat since the blizzard, said Brad Clement, a maintenance contractor for the company. Drifting snow had blocked exhaust vents, he said, causing the units to shut down.
Investigators do not believe that had anything to do with the explosion.
Services for Fussell will be held at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at The Neighborhood Cafe on Congress Avenue.
The Desmond Funeral Home is collecting donations to help defray funeral expenses. Donations may be made to: Dale Fussell Funeral Fund, care of Desmond Funeral Home, 638 High St., Bath, ME 04530.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: