August 2, 2013

Insufficient brake fluid cited in Bangor parade fatality

The braking system in an antique fire truck failed during the Bangor/Brewer Fourth of July parade.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

The firefighter who was driving the antique fire truck that crushed a Holden man during the Bangor/Brewer July 4th parade stood on the brake pedal so hard that it made an imprint on the floor but could not stop the truck, investigators said.

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A crash between an antique fire truck and an antique tractor killed Wallace Fenlason, 63, of Holden, on July 4 in Bangor.

Courtesy Bangor Police Department

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The accident happened just after the vehicles turned from Main onto Water Street in Bangor. Typically, the parade would go from Main Street and continue onto Hammond Street, then State Street, but an incident forced the closure of State and Exchange streets, rerouting the parade down Water Street.

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Read the full collision report by Bangor Police Department

The braking system failed because there wasn't enough brake fluid in the truck's master cylinder and the fluid that was in there was contaminated with water, according to a report released Thursday.

The crash killed Wallace Fenlason, 63, who was driving an antique tractor in front of the truck. The tractor was struck when the fire truck's brakes failed, knocking him to the ground.

Patrick Heathcote, 29, the firefighter who was driving the truck, tried to avoid the tractor and the crowd, the report said, but rolled over Fenlason, killing him instantly.

"Heathcote stated that the brakes failed and the pedal went to the floorboards," according to a report prepared by Bangor police Officer James Dearing. "Several witnesses also stated that they saw Heathcote 'standing on the brakes' yet the fire truck did not stop and struck the tractor."

The crash happened at 12:40 p.m. in front of the densest crowds on the parade route, which had been shortened because of an armed standoff near State and Exchange streets.

Dearing said he and Evidence Technician Christopher Blanchard "observed imprints and fresh flakes of paint where both the clutch and brake pedals had embedded into the pedal openings of the floorboard," the report said.

Maine State Police Trooper Derrick Record checked under the fire truck and found no leaks in the brake system. Bangor Fire Chief Scott Lucas then tried the brakes and they functioned normally. Dearing notes that the test was done about two hours after the crash, when the vehicle's fluids, including the brake fluid, had cooled off.

Heathcote said he tried to go around the tractor and avoid the crowd of people at Water and Main streets. He grabbed the hand brake to try to stop the 1930 McCann fire truck.

Heathcote told police he had driven the truck the day before and that morning to make sure it was operating properly.

When he turned onto Water Street, the parade and the tractor in front of him had stopped. The crash occurred at the steepest part of the route.

"The failure was due to an insufficient amount of brake fluid and poor quality brake fluid which introduced air into the brake system," the report concluded.

The crash rekindled debate over whether antique vehicles should be subject to annual inspections. They now must meet basic safety standards but, unlike modern vehicles, are not subjected to routine annual inspections.

The 1930 McCann pumper would not have been required to meet the standards because it was being used on a parade route, which is not a public way under Maine law.

The report's conclusions say Fenlason was killed instantly by the truck, which weighs 12,800 pounds. The truck stopped because of a combination of Heathcote applying the hand brake and the deceleration caused when it knocked over and pushed the tractor.

The report clears Heathcote of any responsibility in the crash as the operator but does not indicate who was responsible for the truck's maintenance.

The truck is owned by the city, but in 1984 responsibility for its maintenance was assigned to the McCann Committee. The city attorney said he can find no reference in city records to the McCann Committee after the written agreement.

Norman Heitmann, Bangor's city solicitor, would not say who was responsible for the vehicle's maintenance.

Calls to Heathcote and Lucas, the fire chief, were not immediately returned.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Additional Photos

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Investigators say the clutch and the brake pedal of an antique fire truck involved in fatal accident showed evidence of how hard the driver had hit them in an attempt to stop the vehicle.

Courtesy Bangor Police Department


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