FARMINGTON — A veteran firefighter was killed Monday and seven other people – including six firefighters – were injured when a ferocious propane explosion leveled a recently constructed building after fire crews had arrived to investigate the smell of gas Monday, officials said.

The blast was so powerful that it blew a vehicle across an intersection and was reportedly heard in Hartford, 30 miles away. Paper, insulation and building debris rained on the area and left a scene that one first responder said resembled a war zone.

Capt. Michael Bell died Monday in an explosion after responding to a gas leak at the LEAP building in Farmington. Photo courtesy of town of Farmington

“It was just total devastation,” Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. said in a television interview.

Capt. Michael Bell, 68, a 30-year member of the Farmington Fire Rescue Department and brother of the department’s chief, died in the blast at 313 Farmington Falls Road, said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. Bell was the second Maine firefighter to be killed in the line of duty this year.

The explosion occurred minutes after firefighters responded to a reported smell of gas shortly after 8 a.m. at the LEAP offices, which had recently been renovated and expanded. LEAP, which stands for Life Enrichment Advancing People, is a nonprofit that provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The loss of life could have been much worse if LEAP maintenance worker Larry Lord hadn’t made sure employees evacuated the building once they smelled gas.

Darryl Wood, executive director of LEAP, referred to Lord as a hero. Lord, a 60-year-old Jay resident, was LifeFlighted to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston with burns and a leg injury, Wood said.

“The most important thing, right now, is the people that were injured are our No. 1 priority,” Wood said. “Everything else will come after.”

Emergency workers and Lord put their safety aside to take care of other people involved, he said.

“There are a lot of heroes here,” Wood said.

A preliminary investigation indicates the explosion was caused by propane, Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck Jr. said during a news conference near the fire station on Farmington Falls Road.

ELEVEN HOMES DESTROYED

McCausland said the explosion “flattened” the two-story LEAP building and an addition that recently opened. The blast also destroyed 11 homes in a nearby mobile home park, displacing 30 people, said Randy Dean, the park’s landlord.

Bell’s brother, Fire Rescue Chief Terry Bell Sr., 62, was among the seriously injured, as was Lord, the LEAP maintenance worker. Bell was taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland.

The others who were injured were Capt. Tim Hardy, 40; Capt. Scott Baxter, 37; and his father, firefighter Theodore Baxter, 64; and firefighter Joseph Hastings, 24, McCausland said. They were taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland and admitted to intensive care.

Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Clyde Ross was also injured. He was treated and released from Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington.

A procession of fire trucks took Bell’s body to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Augusta on  Monday afternoon. A procession returning his body was planned for Tuesday morning, although details were not available Monday night.

The Bells are part of a firefighting family that included their father, the late Jack Bell, who spent nearly 50 years in the department before he died at 80 in 2009.

When Berwick Fire Capt. Joel Barnes died in an apartment building fire in March, public safety officials said he was likely the first firefighter in Maine to have died in a fire in more than 38 years.

State fire investigators were joined at the scene by investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The two agencies will begin processing the scene Tuesday to try to pinpoint the source of the explosion.

‘ONE BIG FAMILY’

State police, local police, multiple fire departments, the Farmington Public Works Department and the Maine Department of Transportation also responded. Emergency responders wore masks as the insulation and dust blew around the scene and streets.

Following the blast, the Farmington Fair closed for the day, as did some businesses, including the Narrow Gauge Cinema. The fair is scheduled to reopen Tuesday at its regularly scheduled time and will be accessible from all entrances.

Route 2 was to remain closed until at least Tuesday evening, police said. Traffic was being detoured to Route 156, the Department of Transportation said.

The explosion, Bell’s death and the injuries, which were reported by news organizations nationwide, stunned the community.

“All of us are one big family,” Police Chief Jack Peck Jr. said. “We all know the fire chief. We all know the firefighter killed today. It affects us tremendously. We all feel for his family as well as the firefighter family. It affects us deeply.”

Nichols, the Franklin County sheriff, was one of the first at the scene of the blast and helped pull people out of the building, Peck said.

Nichols said he spent a year in Iraq and that was as close as he could come to explain the extent of devastation.

“I have never seen destruction like that in my career,” he said. “I have been in law enforcement 35 years and I have never seen anything like this in my life, except overseas.”

The firefighters who were injured were part of Farmington’s full-time staff. Nichols said their injuries will significantly affect Farmington and other communities.

Fire departments from around the area are helping to cover for the Farmington department.

The Farmington Fire Rescue Department’s ladder truck was damaged and is out of service, Peck said. A ladder truck from a department in Kennebec County was being sent to the fire station.

ONLY A HOLE REMAINS

Gov. Janet Mills is from Farmington and went to the scene.

“We are a strong community,” said Mills, who ordered state flags to be flown at half-staff. “We are a very close-knit community.”

The governor said officials will work to make sure the cause of the explosion is determined to prevent such a blast in the future.

“Meanwhile, our hearts go out to all of the families of the injured and deceased, and all of the people of this community, of which I am a proud member,” Mills said.

Locals officials said Bell became a lieutenant in 1983, was promoted to assistant chief the following year and to deputy chief in 1991. He was named chief in 2000.

A Farmington native, he graduated from the Maine State Fire Academy in 1981 and, in 1991, became the town’s emergency management director.

The building was only a couple of weeks old, Farmington Selectman Scott Landry said. A hole is all that is left.

“The new building is spread all over creation,” Landry said.

This report contains information from The Associated Press.

Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.