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.
By Tom Bell
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.
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.
He said the boxes were likely used to light kindling in the stove. Investigators also found near the stove a container of lighter fluid, which likely helped spread the fire once the cardboard boxes ignited.
Neighbors and firefighters reported not hearing any working smoke detectors in the house, investigators said.
The two-story Cape, built in 1966, is owned by John Costello and Heather Bemis of 383A Essex St., Bangor, according to Orrington tax records.
JPMorgan Chase Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings on the couple in October, 2011, and on Sept. 24 a judge issued a judgment of foreclosure and order of sale, according to records at the Penobscot County Registry of Deeds.
The house was vacant between May 2011 and March 2012, when the Johnson family moved in under an agreement that allowed them to stay in the house for a nominal rent while the proceedings for the short sale took place, Cormier said.
While the house was vacant last winter, he said, some of the heating pipes froze and were damaged, making the heating system nonfunctional.
"The family had a glimmer of hope of getting their own home under affordable terms, and unfortunately we have lost four of them," Cormier said. "This is very, very tragic."
The house was assessed by the town at $166,600, and the asking price when the house was listed for sale was $129,000. Costello and Bemis owe the bank about $164,000 in principal, interest and fees, according to court records.
Insufficient clearance between wood stoves and combustible materials is the single biggest cause of fires involving wood stoves, Thomas said. He said the Fire Marshal's Office recommends that combustible materials be kept three feet away from wood stoves. People also need to make sure the smoke detectors are working, and families should discuss how they will evacuate a house in case of a fire.
He said fires like the one in Orrington can easily be avoided if people take prudent safety measures.
"It doesn't have to happen," he said.
Staff Writer Ray Routhier contributed to this story.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at