November 13, 2012

Wood stove ignited tragic Orrington fire

The Johnson family, which lost a child to SIDS in 2007, planned to fix the furnace after getting a mortgage loan.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

The fire that killed Benjamin Johnson III, 30, and his three young children in Orrington early Saturday began when cardboard boxes were ignited by a wood stove -- a stove that was being used for heat as the family waited for a loan to buy the house and replace its broken furnace.

click image to enlarge

A team of state police and fire marshals confer inside the Orrington house where a man and his three children died in a fire Saturday.

AP Photo/Kevin Bennett, Bangor Daily News

Investigators at the state Fire Marshal's Office said Monday that the empty boxes had been left just inches from the stove and that the home did not have a working furnace or functioning smoke detectors.

The findings were conveyed Monday to the tragedy's only survivor, Christine Johnson, 31, who was being treated for smoke inhalation at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

Foreclosure proceedings had begun on the home. The Johnsons -- who planned to buy the house -- had been living there since March while proceedings for a short sale were in process, said Philip Cormier, the real estate agent handling the sale.

The Johnsons planned to replace the 46-year-old hot water furnace once the sale was approved by the lender, JPMorgan Chase Bank, in a couple of months, he said. Cormier said the Johnsons had qualified for a loan, which included money to replace the furnace, but they could not access the money until the short sale had been completed. A short sale, which occurs when a house is sold for less than what's owed on it, typically takes months to finalize.

The fire was the deadliest in Maine in 20 years. Also dead are 9-year-old Ben, 8-year-old Leslie and 4-year-old Ryan. As did their father, the children died from smoke inhalation.

Their bodies were found on the floor of a second-story bedroom, and the father's body was found at the head of the stairs.

The children's mother and Benjamin Johnson's wife, Christine Johnson, had been rescued from the roof of her burning home.

The family had experienced tragedy before. In 2007, Christine and Benjamin Johnson lost their infant son, Thomas, who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, said Tabitha Robertson of Whiting, a friend of the Johnson family.

"They are both firm believers that God only gives you as much as you can handle," Robertson said of the couple.

Robertson, who visited Johnson in her hospital room since the fire, said Johnson has been involved in some of the funeral planning for her husband and children.

Johnson has a strong network of family and friends, Robertson said. Still, Robertson is uncertain what the future holds for her friend.

"Ben was her soul, the kids were her soul, so I just don't know how well she's going to recover," Robertson said. "It's just been one thing after another for her."

Johnson is passionate about writing. This summer, she published her first book, a paranormal fantasy called "The Quest for the Enchanted Stone," through a book publishing services company.

Benjamin Johnson supported the family by working two jobs, as a card dealer at the casino tables of Hollywood Slots in Bangor and also as a restocking clerk at the Walmart Supercenter, Cormier said.

He said the couple had a good relationship and were engaged with their children.

"It was very much all about the kids," he said.

The blaze was reported shortly after 2:30 a.m. by neighbors who heard Christine Johnson screaming. When firefighters arrived, she was on the roof of the home, which was engulfed in flames.

The furnace had not been working, fire investigators said. The home was being heated with the wood stove and also a propane heater insert in a fireplace. The propane heater had not been operating that night, investigators said.

The family had returned from a night of bowling late Friday and then started the stove, located in a first-floor living room. The boxes were within inches of the stove, State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said.

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