BATH — They cried and raised their eyes up in prayer, recalling the warm-hearted woman who for the past two years cooked community meals in a church kitchen as a way of giving back.
More than 150 community members, friends and relatives of Dale Fussell retold stories of the time they spent with the 64-year-old grandmother, in the same hall at the United Church of Christ in Bath where she helped serve the needy.
“She liked being part of something, and we loved that she was part of that something, too,” said Patti Silva, a friend of Fussell and manager of the UCC kitchen, during an emotional 45-minute service.
Fussell was killed in a fiery explosion that leveled her Bluff Road duplex Feb. 12, a blast that fire investigators have attributed to a propane leak. An attorney hired by her family to pursue possible litigation against the managers and owners of the apartment complex said she had been having problems with the propane heater in her apartment for several months.
Silva said before the memorial service that Fussell had complained of a severe headache as long as a month ago, saying she smelled gas inside her home. Days before the explosion, Fussell apparently told her brother about problems with her heater, according to the attorney, Terry Garmey.
Fire investigators believe a gas coupling between the exterior supply pipe and an interior hose that fed the heating unit was the source of the leak, allowing the heavy gas to leak and accumulate before a spark apparently ignited it. Propane is heavier than air and can accumulate in enclosed spaces.
State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said last week there was no way to know how long the propane gas may have accumulated.
Garmey said he met with Fussell’s family Tuesday and has provided a notice of claim to EWT LLC 7, the building’s owner, and Keystone Management Co., both of Concord, N.H., and Irving Oil of Portsmouth, N.H., which supplies the gas. The notice is the first step toward taking legal action.
A person who answered the phone at Keystone’s office declined to comment. Several messages for comment left Tuesday for the owner of EWT LLC 7, listed in New Hampshire corporate records as Eaton W. Tarbell Jr., and a spokesman for Irving Oil, were not returned.
The propane heating system for the Atlantic Townhouse Apartments where Fussell lived was installed in 2000, when Keystone Management Co. took over management of the 144 units.
Garmey said the state caps the amount that a court may award for such a death at $500,000, but by filing the notice with the companies this week, the clock starts to run on interest that could accrue from any future monetary settlement.
“The suspicion is that this was avoidable,” said Garmey. “Usually in my experience, (in) explosions and carbon monoxide cases, usually there is a trail of concerning events that are disregarded.”
Garmey said he has spoken with family members and friends of Fussell who said that as early as last summer, she told them about having trouble with her gas service and had been warned not to use the air conditioner or a fan because of a problem with the propane. Garmey said he didn’t know who had warned her not to use the appliances.
Two days before the blast, Garmey said Fussell had told her brother she was having problems with the heater. He said he was told by two family members that on the night before she was killed, someone performed work on the heater after Fussell complained twice to apartment managers.
“I’m fairly confident that she had problems with her heating unit on various occasions,” Garmey said.
At Tuesday’s memorial service, people stood in the doorways and aisles of the church to listen to others talk about Fussell, who loved listening to Motown artists and spoke often of her large extended family.
Members of Fussell’s family, who came from as far away as Atlanta to attend the ceremony, sat at three tables at the front of the hall. Fussell’s brother, Robert “Barry” Price, at times held his head in his hands, before taking his turn to speak.
“Thank you everybody for your love and support to open your homes, your hearts, to this family,” said Price, who grew up in Bath. “I’ve never been so proud to come back as I have today.”
Even in the midst of sadness, there were moments of levity, too.
Friends from the church’s soup kitchen, called the Neighborhood Cafe, recalled Fussell’s unvarnished honesty, her penchant for unexpectedly foul language, and the fun they had thinking up silly names for her kitten, which she eventually named Pickles, Silva said.
Fussell’s grandson Terrance Epperson joked that his grandmother would seemingly call him every other relative’s name but his.
“She’d call me ‘Michael’ 18 million times before she called me ‘Terrance,’” he said, to a laugh.
Another grandson, Mikey Epperson, 16, of New London, Conn., struggled to contain his emotions, telling of the summer he spent with Fussell and of helping her make dinner. He recalled receiving a pair of socks she had sewn for him.
When he learned of her death, he said he stayed up all night looking at pictures of his grandmother.
“She’s not gone,” Mikey Epperson said. “She’s still here. She’s in my heart.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: