ORRINGTON – When Christine Johnson was released Tuesday from a Bangor hospital, she didn’t have a home to return to; she didn’t have a family to return to, either.
Her home, charred black from the inside out, was still standing but unlivable. The acrid smell of smoke hung in the air. Firefighters and inspectors were long gone but yellow caution tape still formed a perimeter around the property. The only signs of habitation were a minivan parked in the driveway, blocked in front by a plastic children’s car.
“My heart breaks for her,” said Lisa Shaw, a resident of Orrington, where Maine’s deadliest fire in two decades left Johnson homeless and claimed the lives of her husband, Benjamin, and her three young children, Ben, Leslie and Ryan. “I don’t know if I could come back from that.”
Tami Healy, whose daughter went to school with Leslie Johnson, said she’s still horrified by what happened.
“I have no idea how you go on,” she said. “(As a mother), it’s my worst nightmare.”
Residents of this small town south of Bangor struggled Tuesday to move on from the weekend tragedy. Some talked of the importance of checking the safety of their homes, in light of the revelation that the Johnsons’ home had no working smoke detectors.
Some were forced to have awkward, painful conversations with their school-age children, who had lost classmates in the blaze.
“My daughter, she didn’t want to believe it was true,” said Healy, who has been an occasional substitute teacher at the elementary school. “She feels very sad that she’s never going to see them again.”
Orrington Fire Chief Michael Spencer worried about his firefighters, who may never again deal with a tragedy of this magnitude.
“Some things don’t leave you,” he said, adding that a handful of them were called to another fire the very next day.
But mostly, people were praying and grieving for Christine Johnson, the new widow who at the young age of 31 has now lost four children. She and her husband lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome in 2007, not long before their youngest, Ryan, was born.
Chris York lives next door to the Johnsons on Dow Road, a rural road where houses are spread apart and shrouded by trees. Early Saturday morning, his wife woke to the sounds of screaming. Awful, heart-wrenching screaming. The Yorks walked outside and saw the glow of flames through the trees. They called 911 and waited for crews to arrive. Other neighbors were helping Christine Johnson from a low roof that connected the house to a garage.
York said firefighters attacked the flames quickly and aggressively. Chief Spencer said his crew went above and beyond the call, but there was nothing they could do.
Christine Johnson climbed to safety from her burning home but her family could not.
“You don’t ever want to feel what she’s feeling,” said York, who remembered seeing the Johnson children playing in the yard this summer. “I can’t imagine.”
Allen Snell, superintendent of schools for Orrington and nearby Dedham, said the last couple days have been rough. He’s been a school administrator for more than 40 years and has dealt with tragedy before, but nothing like this.
Roy Allen, principal at the Center Drive School, said kids were handling the tragedy well, all things considered. In many ways, he said, it had turned into a learning opportunity. Many children likely will go home and talk to their parents about fire safety.
Lisa Shaw, who lives down the road from the Johnsons, drove to work early Saturday morning past the fire. She knew it was bad. She has three kids, including one in sixth grade at the Orrington school. The day after the fire, the family checked all their smoke detectors. They created a plan for what to do if something like that should happen to them.
“I bet a lot of people are doing the same thing,” Shaw said.
Chief Spencer said if anything good can come out of this tragedy, it’s a renewed focus on safety.
“A lot of people think it can’t happen to them,” he said. Every time he goes out on a call, though, it’s those same people. The people who think they are safe.
In the coming days, there will be memorial services for Benjamin Johnson III and his three children. Christine Johnson, just out of the hospital, has assisted in the preparation. After that, her future is uncertain, according to those in the town.
But even though the Johnsons were not lifelong residents of Orrington, they are a part of the town now; forever etched into its history. On Dec. 9, at a bowling area in nearby Brewer that the family frequented, there will be a fundraiser for Christine Johnson.
Chief Spencer said he expects a good turnout. He expects the town to come together. He expects life to go on.
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: [email protected]