It is, until further notice, the largest fire department in Maine.

“Scarborough, Portland, Gardiner, Freeport, Yarmouth, Wales … Waterville’s here, too,” Gerry Pineau, a firefighter and paramedic from Westbrook, said amid the hubbub inside the Farmington Fire Department. “Augusta, Rangeley, Lewiston, Auburn … all those towns, off the top of my head, have already been here or are scheduled to be here.”

They routinely refer to themselves as family.

They call each other brother or sister, even if meeting for the first time.

And when tragedy strikes, as it did Monday morning less than a mile from Farmington’s fire station, they line up to lend a hand.

“What happens in this kind of crisis is it’s not a crisis,” Pineau said. “Because operations here have not ceased.”

Driving by the town’s fire station Wednesday afternoon, you might think it was just another late summer day in central Maine. An engine and a ladder truck sat at the ready in the large driveway, while firefighters in dark slacks and navy blue T-shirts came and went through the open bays of the cavernous station.

But the ladder truck was from Augusta. And the T-shirts sported logos from all over. And the occasional bear hugs between grown men signified that these are far from normal times.

Just after 8 a.m. Monday, six local firefighters, including most of the department’s command staff, responded to reports of a gas smell at the newly renovated Life Enrichment Advancing People (LEAP) building on Farmington Falls Road.

Minutes later, as the firefighters and the site’s maintenance manager investigated the odor, the building exploded violently enough to be heard 30 miles away.

Killed instantly was Capt. Michael Bell, 68, a department veteran of 30 years. His brother, Fire Rescue Chief Terry Bell, 62, suffered critical injuries, as did Capt. Scott Baxter, 37; his father, firefighter Theodore “Ted” Baxter, 64; and Larry Lord, 60, the maintenance manager. Also hospitalized were Capt. Tim Hardy. 40; and firefighter Joseph Hastings, 24.

In other words, almost a quarter of Farmington’s 27-member fire department went down in the blast. Even as the insulation drifted down like snow onto lawns and sidewalks hundreds of yards from the obliterated LEAP building, it became all too clear to the rest of Maine’s firefighting community that this was a town in need of help. Immediately.

Jim Roy, a lieutenant with the Waterville Fire Department, heard about the explosion shortly after it happened and thought immediately of Capt. Hardy, with whom he once worked as a full-time firefighter in Waterville. Hardy also is an instructor at the Maine Fire Services Institute, where Roy serves as deputy director.

“Obviously, when we heard, we had hoped Tim wasn’t involved,” Roy said. “And then we found out.”

Now here Roy was, putting in a 12-hour shift on his own time at his fallen friend’s firehouse.

“You think about how many times you get a call that’s exactly the same – the smell of gas in a building – and you respond,” Roy said. “And fortunately for us, we’ve never had to experience anything like this.”

Time will tell why Monday’s call, unlike so many others, ended so badly. All that matters to these firefighters now is the void that needs filling – and if that means putting yourself in harm’s way to serve a community far away from your own, so be it.

“My town, their town, it doesn’t matter. We do it,” said Dan Masselli, deputy chief of the Yarmouth Fire Department and, on this day, Farmington’s operations officer.

Masselli began his firefighting career in nearby Jay. When he first heard about the explosion while walking into his office in Yarmouth, he already knew who among the core of Farmington’s department would likely be the ones being airlifted to Maine Medical Center in Portland.

“We’ve trained together,” Masselli said. “We’ve had beers together over the years. It’s that intimate.”

Like most other firefighters, Masselli sits up and takes notice whenever catastrophe befalls a fire department anywhere. Usually, it’s in some distant place like New York City, California or Florida.

But then last March, Berwick Fire Capt. Joel Barnes died while shielding one of his men from the heat of a four-alarm blaze inside an apartment building.

“That was close by – a lot of us knew him,” Masselli said. “Then, when it hits right in your circle of friends …”

Pointing up at the offices overlooking the truck bays, Masselli shook his head. “I’m sitting at Tim Hardy’s desk, and another chief is sitting at another deputy’s desk,” he said. “It’s surreal.”

Still, they’re getting the job done. When calls came in Wednesday – one for suspected carbon monoxide, another for a car wreck – the makeshift crews rolled and did as they’re trained to do. For those drivers not familiar with local roads, Farmington police have deployed an officer and cruiser to lead the way.

The round-the-clock rotations – eight firefighters and one chief officer per 12-hour shift – will continue at least through the end of the month.

Windham Fire Chief Brent Libby, one of a platoon of fire chiefs who converged on Farmington within a few hours of Monday’s explosion, has taken on the task of scheduling the volunteer crews.

“We’ve heard from people from every corner of the state,” Libby said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “It’s an unfortunate situation you hope to never have to go through or have a department go through, but it’s been absolutely amazing and really pretty awesome to see everybody rally around the Farmington department.”

The goal, Libby said, is to protect the community while Farmington’s firefighters mourn the loss of Capt. Bell, support their injured comrades and keep an eye on their families. The volunteers will keep coming as long as Acting Chief Timothy A. Hardy – whose son was among the injured – needs the help.

“This way, we can shoulder that burden for them while they process what they’re going through,” Libby said.

Firefighter/paramedic Pineau of Westbrook plans on sticking around at least until Sunday.

Like Yarmouth’s Masselli, Pineau began his career in Jay. As a 14-year-old junior firefighter, he once assisted the older guys by filling oxygen tanks, handing out water and helping out with grass fires.

Thus, upon hearing about Monday’s tragedy and heading north on the turnpike, Pineau wasn’t simply rushing to some faraway town to fill in for comrades he’d never met. He was coming home.

With time, Farmington’s first responders will get back on their feet. But until then, however long it takes, they will not bear this burden alone.

“When your family needs help, you respond, right?” Pineau said. “Same thing here.”


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