Ten-foot posts were installed Sept. 10, 2019, in the LEAP Inc. parking lot to protect an outside air conditioning unit. Investigators said the post cut open the yellow propane line. Photo submitted by the Maine Department of Public Safety

FARMINGTON — The Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office says the Sept. 16, 2019, explosion at the LEAP building in Farmington that killed Fire Rescue Capt. Michael Bell was caused when the underground propane line was severed by a Manchester company. Fire investigators say no criminal charges are anticipated.

Investigators have concluded that when Techno Metal Posts in Manchester was installing four bollards, or metal posts, they inadvertently cut the line, causing the propane leak and the explosion that leveled the LEAP Inc. building, according to Steve McCausland, spokesman of the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Ten-foot posts were installed in the LEAP parking lot to protect an outside air conditioning unit Sept. 10. Investigators said the post cut open a propane line. Photo submitted by the Maine Department of Public Safety

The 10-foot long posts were drilled into the ground about 5 feet away from the building into the paved parking lot. Each was sunk about 7 feet, leaving 3 feet above ground, according to McCausland’s release.

The posts were installed to protect an outside air conditioning unit next to the building. The propane line was buried about 2.5 to 3 feet under the parking lot and connected the propane tank behind the property. It was connected to the building through the basement wall at the rear corner. The parking lot had been paved after the installation of the propane line last summer. The metal posts are about 4 inches thick, but each had a 10.5-inch wide auger head that allows the post to be drilled into the ground. It was the auger head that nicked the propane line, which was encased in a protective plastic sleeve.

Although investigators have pinpointed what caused the damage to the gas line, the source of ignition that sparked the explosion cannot be determined. There are a number of possible sources of ignition, including disruption of electricity, a light switch, a furnace or static, the release stated.

Farmington Fire Rescue Capt. Michael Bell, 68, a 30-year veteran of the department, died in the explosion which also seriously or critically injured six other firefighters and LEAP maintenance supervisor Larry Lord.

Fire investigators say no criminal charges are anticipated, according to McCausland.

“Certainly everyone has been waiting with anticipation for some of the specifics about the explosion, but none more than the firefighters who, as they do every day, put their lives at risk when they responded to the building that day. And, as we know, one of those brave firefighters paid the ultimate price,” Augusta attorney Walter McKee, who represents Capt. Bell’s family and other firefighters, said in an email Friday. “The firefighters have been waiting to get some official word about the details of what happened here and these findings confirmed these details. They are all looking forward to seeing the full report when it comes out so they can make some sense of how this terrible tragedy happened, and most importantly what can be done so that it never ever happens again.”

Lord, who remains hospitalized at a Boston hospital, and his family are being represented by Berman & Simmons in Lewiston.

“On behalf of the Lord family we appreciate the ongoing efforts of the investigating officials whom we expect will produce a thorough and revealing report. The press release issued by the State Fire Marshal’s office today is by design limited in its breadth,” wrote attorneys Steven Silin and Daniel Kagan of Berman & Simmons in a joint statement Friday. “We expect that when the Fire Marshal releases its full conclusions that report will address errors and omissions by multiple parties, some of whom are identified in today’s press release. (E.G.: The press release identifies the bollard installation as the cause of the leak but does not address the gas supplier’s  decision to refill the emptied tank without first identifying why it was empty as required by code.)

“It is preliminary to state whether suit will be necessary in order for all those responsible to be held accountable for the grievous harm that resulted from this tragic event,” the statement continued.

The posts that severed the propane line were installed Sept. 10, 2019. 

On Sept. 13, 2019, Larry Lord discovered that the 500-gallon propane tank was empty and the propane supplier to the building, C.N. Brown, was called and the tank was filled just after noon, the release stated.

The following Monday morning, a second maintenance worker felt dizzy after being in the building for a short time. He and Lord discovered that the propane tank was empty again. Lord called the fire department, opened windows and doors, and told the staff to leave. The fire department arrived at 8:13 a.m. and joined Lord in the basement looking for the source of the propane leak while some firefighters went elsewhere in the building to make sure it was vacant.

The building exploded at 8:28 a.m.

A wreath hangs from a chain-link fence surrounding the almost-vacant site of the LEAP building that exploded Sept. 16, 2019, in Farmington. Donna M. Perry/Sun Journal

The blast was so powerful it blew a vehicle across an intersection and damaged nearby homes, leaving many homeless.

“It is a tragic situation all the way around. We’re all very sad to see what happened. It appears to be a situation that no one could have foreseen,” Town Manager Richard Davis said Friday. “I stand behind the Farmington Fire Rescue Department. It is a group of highly trained professional first responders who do their job bravely every day. My heart goes out to the families of Capt. Bell and Larry Lord. I hope they continue to heal and move on from this tragic accident.”

Among the other agencies that participated in the investigation were the Farmington Police and Fire departments; Maine State Police; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives; the Maine Attorney General’s Office; the Maine Fuel Board, which oversees fuel storage; and the Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the Dig Safe program.

A damage prevention investigator for the Maine PUC cited Techno Post and owner Michael Brochu on Dec. 23 for probable violations of “excavator failure to properly notify Dig Safe” and the “excavator failed to properly premark area of proposed excavation,” according to the PUC notice. Investigator Barry Truman recommended a penalty of $500 for each violation.

LEAP’s attorney, Erin Murphy in Waterville, said “we have no comment at this time.”

A bill introduced in the Maine Legislature would add language that specifically addresses liquefied propane lines.

The daughter of Capt. Bell, who was killed, testified in favor of the bill Tuesday.

“The leak that lead to the explosion that killed my father was preventable and never should have happened,” Danielle Bell Flannery said.

On Friday, Stars of Hope and a Christmas wreath hung from a chain link fence surrounding the site of the Sept. 16, 2019, fatal propane blast at the LEAP building. A mailbox post still stands out front where the building once was. Another star hangs from it.

The near vacant lot at 313 Farmington Falls Road is covered in snow, but part of a wooden post with a partial entrance sign still attached sticks up.

Now that the community has some answers from the investigation it can continue to move on. But it will never forget.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

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.