FARMINGTON — Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols was in his office by 6:30 a.m., catching up on calls and paperwork while the day was still quiet.

Town selectman and state Rep. Scott Landry was in the middle of morning chores at his barn 3 miles away.

Stephan Bunker, also a selectman and 30-year volunteer firefighter, sipped his first cup of coffee, his emergency radio close by as always.

Bailey Audette helped prep for pet surgeries at Clearwater Veterinary Hospital. Her husband and 7-year-old son were still at home sleeping.

Larry Lord arrived at the LEAP Inc. offices early. As maintenance manager, he usually comes in later, but on that day was returning some tables that had been used for an event over the weekend.

Ten other employees of LEAP, a nonprofit agency – Life Enrichment Advancing People – that serves adults with developmental and cognitive disabilities, already were inside their newly expanded office, ready to start another workweek.

And firefighters Michael Bell, Terry Bell, Clyde Ross, Scott Baxter, Theodore Baxter, Timothy “TD” Hardy and Joseph Hastings huddled inside the town fire station waiting for their next call.

As Lord returned the tables to the LEAP building basement, he noticed the smell of gas. He quickly went upstairs and told the workers they needed to evacuate as a precaution.

He called the fire department at 8:07 a.m. The crew of six Farmington firefighters arrived in less than 10 minutes.

Lord, along with the Bell brothers and another firefighter, went back into the building, down into the basement, to investigate the smell. The others remained outside.

At 8:28 a.m., the building exploded, lifting the walls off the concrete foundation, snapping roof trusses, shredding insulation and Sheetrock into confetti and shattering an otherwise routine Monday in this western Maine college town.

A wreath at the Farmington fire station on Wednesday, in memory of the fallen firefighter Capt. Michael Bell. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The blast killed Michael Bell instantly. Four others – Lord, Terry Bell, and Theodore and Scott Baxter – were critically injured.

Directly behind the site, 30 people who lived in a cluster of 11 mobile homes were displaced and some of their belongings were buried under piles of debris. The homes are no longer habitable.

As state and federal investigators spent the rest of the week sifting through the rubble trying to determine what happened, several townspeople spoke to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram to offer their account of an event that will stay with them, and the town, for years to come.

***

Brandon Audette had overslept.

His wife had left for her job at 7:15 and he was supposed to be up by 8 to get his stepson, Coleman, ready for school. The Audettes lived in a mobile home directly behind the LEAP building. They had moved in this June and had only recently hung curtains and pictures on the walls.

“It was our home, you know,” Brandon said last week. “It’s not a big mansion or nothing, but it was ours.”

The blast jolted him awake. There was debris piled on him. He reached to the other side of the bed, which was empty, and panicked for a moment before realizing his wife was already at work.

Then he shouted for his stepson, who was on the opposite side of the trailer.

Investigators work Wednesday at 313 Farmington Falls Road in Farmington, where an explosion earlier in the week claimed the life of a Farmington firefighter and critically injured four others. The blast also left 31 people homeless after destroying nearby mobile homes, including the home (pictured) of 29-year-old Brandon Audette and his wife, Bailey Audette, 26, and her 7-year-old son. Brandon was home with his stepson at the time of the explosion, asleep in their bedrooms at each side of the house, when the blast blew through the center of the mobile home. “Normal day, me and him would have been in the living room,” he said. “I am glad I overslept.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As Audette navigated the wreckage of the home, he noticed a garage-door size hole in the living room, where he might have been sitting and eating breakfast had he not overslept.

Audette found Coleman outside his room, outside the house entirely. The boy told him he didn’t know how he got there. He was clutching a remote control and shaking. But he didn’t have a scratch.

“Just to hear his voice and see him whole, nothing else mattered at that point,” Audette said. “Everything else is replaceable.”

Audette didn’t have his cellphone with him so he asked a neighbor, who also had been forced out of her home from the explosion, if he could use hers.

His wife didn’t recognize the incoming call but answered. The man on the other end said, without an introduction, “The LEAP office blew up and our house is gone.”

“I didn’t know who it was at first,” she said.

Then she got in her car and drove back to see what was left. As she arrived at the scene, she could see her husband and son standing on the perimeter, holding hands and wearing dazed expressions.

***

Sheriff Scott Nichols said the explosion jolted his staff into action immediately.

“We all just start putting on our armor and heading out the door,” he said.

Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols likened the scene to a “war zone.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The scene was a little less than 4 miles from the sheriff’s office. Nichols said the ride over was a blur.

“What made it sink in for me was driving over and hearing them yell on the radio: “We’re bleeding! We’re on fire! We need help!’” he said.

“It was not normal radio traffic,” added Lt. David Rackliffe, who also responded. “The first police officer on scene, you could tell from his tone it was serious.”

When they arrived, Nichols said the air was filled with caustic debris and it was difficult to breathe. Rackliffe compared it to the gray haze that settled over Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Lord was one of the first people they saw. Nichols declined to describe his condition out of respect for the man’s family.

“It was awful,” he said.

The scene was organized chaos, Nichols said. No chain of command, just people acting on instinct. He and others started carrying stretchers to a triage area where ambulances were waiting. Three were airlifted to Maine Medical Center in Portland. Lord was flown to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He suffered burns on more than two-thirds of his body and is expected to spend at least four months in the burn unit.

After that, Nichols and his people went to the mobile home park and started banging on doors. They met the Audettes, who were already outside.

“It was shocking to find these people who had all come out whole, at least physically,” the sheriff said.

Back at the Franklin County dispatch center, the phones were ringing nonstop.

“People were all saying the same thing, that there was an explosion,” he said. “Then it switched to people calling to say, ‘Is so-and-so safe? Did he make it out?’”

Nichols had already done his own inventory. The only person he didn’t see pulled out was Michael Bell.

***

Stephan Bunker heard the first radio call for the fire department to investigate the smell of propane at the LEAP building. He said it was the kind of call that firefighters go on hundreds of times in their careers, and he thought little of it.

Stephan Bunker, a volunteer firefighter for over 30 years, helped get his chief stabilized and out of the rubble and helped recover Capt. Michael Bell’s body. Later, he accompanied a Farmington police officer to deliver the news to Bell’s family that he was gone. “Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Twenty minutes later everything changed.

“We felt and heard the explosion. … It rattled the windows,” Bunker said. “My wife and I both said, ‘Oh my God.’ And I knew what that was.”

Bunker grabbed his radio, climbed in the truck and headed for the fire station, knowing he would be needed. On the short ride, he heard his chief, Terry Bell, on the radio saying, “We need help. We need help.” Chief Bell was trapped in the basement.

“That will be ingrained in my memory forever,” Bunker said.

He met two other volunteers at the station, and they drove a crew truck to the scene. Bunker said it was confusing to realize the building, only recently built, had been obliterated.

“I just couldn’t believe my eyes; I was trying to get (oriented) to where the building was,” he said.

Bunker said he went to where the voices were loudest. He helped get his chief stabilized and out of the rubble in the basement.

Investigators arrived a short time later and had to secure the scene, which meant leaving Michael Bell’s body in the wreckage.

Later that afternoon, Bunker was among the firefighters who moved Bell’s body into the medical examiner’s van. He paused as he retold the story to compose himself.  Bunker also would later be tasked with the grim job of accompanying a Farmington police officer to deliver the news to Bell’s family that he had died.

“Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Bunker said, fighting back tears again.

***

Scott Landry, a town selectman and lawmaker who also sits on LEAP’s board, heard the explosion from his home 3 miles away. He didn’t know what it was until another LEAP board member called a minute later and said the building has just blown up.

“I jumped in my truck and high-tailed it down there,” Landry said.

Scott Landry, a town selectman and lawmaker, heard the explosion from his barn 3 miles away. He got to the scene when the ambulances were pulling away. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

By the time he arrived, all the firefighters, except Michael Bell, had been removed. The ambulances were pulling away.

Landry said the scene was unlike anything he’s seen.

“It was like it was snowing,” he said of the debris in the air.

He learned within a few minutes that one of the firefighters had died, but he didn’t know who.

“That was the worst part, standing there not knowing which one of your friends was gone,” he said.

Landry spoke to a friend of his who was inside the closest business, Shiretown Tire. The friend, who declined to speak with a reporter, told Landry he was thrown across the building when the blast occurred. He then grabbed a ladder that was in the tire shop and ran over to help pull people out, including Lord, who was wearing only a shirt and shorts and suffered burns on more than two-thirds of his body.

Landry’s phone started ringing at about 8:45 a.m. and didn’t stop. Every media call went to him. He told them what he knew, which wasn’t much.

“I usually photograph everything,” he said. “I think this is the first time I’ve been to something and I forgot to take out my camera.”

At 9:21 a.m., he placed his own call to a fellow Farmington native who lives elsewhere now.

“I said you better get your ass down here,” Landry told Gov. Janet Mills.

The governor arrived at 12:30 p.m.

***

The blast leveled the building that housed LEAP – a nonprofit that serves people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities – damaged or destroyed more than a dozen homes and blanketed the surrounding area with shredded paper, insulation and lumber. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Many others in town were shaken by the explosion.

Steve Cutler, who lives about a half-mile away on Davis Road, said pictures fell off his walls and it “just shook the whole house.”

He went outside on his deck, got into his truck, and that’s when I saw “complete devastation.”

“It was white insulation, materials everywhere. I was dumbfounded,” Cutler said.

One car flipped over. Several others had windows blown out and were covered with dust.

Kim Hilton, who works in the admissions department at the nearby University of Maine at Farmington, said the blast “felt like someone hit our building with a vehicle.”

Steve Lewis said it takes him only a few minutes to drive from his house to Ron’s Market on High Street, where he works. He was off on Monday but still drove to the market for coffee and his daily newspaper. It was around 8:30 a.m. when he noticed the white debris falling from the sky. At first, he thought it might be pollen floating in the air.

Lewis, 62, said he is good friends with Lord, the building’s maintenance worker. He said he went to high school with some of the firefighters as well.

“I know them all wicked good,” Lewis said. “I just thank God that not more people were injured or killed.”

Jennifer Damon, who lives nearby, heard the explosion and went outside. She did what many people do these days – she shot video with her phone. In the short clip, you can hear her heavy breathing. The thick air nearly blocks out the sun.

“I have no idea what the (expletive) happened,” she says.

The seven-second video was posted on Twitter at 9:03 a.m. and widely shared. It was featured on both local and national TV broadcasts that evening.

Melissa Knowles, who was working as a parking lot attendant at the Farmington Fairgrounds, thought the blast might be some kind of joke.

“I thought someone was pranking me,” Knowles said Wednesday, back at the same spot, sitting in a folding lawn chair under a pop-up canopy.

But as the debris started falling around her, she quickly realized that something was horribly wrong, Then she began to worry. Her daughter, Julia Galusha, was on her way to the fairgrounds and would have been driving right by the explosion site. She was safe but was being detoured.

Immediately after the blast, Knowles said it was eerily quiet for a few minutes before sirens filled the air. When she learned Farmington had lost a firefighter, all she could do was cry the rest of the day.

***

As Monday afternoon approached, and the identities of the fallen and injured firefighters were released to the public, focus had shifted to investigating how the explosion happened.

Officials from the State Fire Marshal’s Office arrived, followed by staff from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The scene was cordoned off with yellow tape.

Michael Bell’s body was removed, finally, and taken to the state medical examiner’s office. A day later, he was returned to a local funeral home. Firefighters, police officers and others lined the streets and saluted the procession.

The others who were injured were being treated at hospitals in Portland and Boston.

Ross was treated at Franklin Memorial Hospital for minor injuries and released. He went back to the scene.

“I was tickled pink to see him standing beside me,” Landry said. “He was all scratched up, said he was blown right across the parking lot.”

Ross has been a longtime figure around town. Most residents know him for playing Chester Greenwood, the Farmington inventor who patented the earmuffs, during a town celebration every first Saturday in December.

Ross declined to be interviewed, instead deferring to Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck. The State Fire Marshal’s Office advised others, including LEAP employees, not to talk to reporters while the investigation was going on.

Peck has become the de facto spokesman for the firefighters, their families, and the town in some ways. On Wednesday, he was being interviewed over and over again by media outlets from around the state and across New England. He did his best to answer questions, be cordial and give out as much information as he could without compromising the investigation.  The firefighters and police in town work closely together and most are friends, calling the bond between the two departments a “brotherhood.”

“We all know each other,” Peck said. “We all know each other’s families, we all grew up together and our kids grew up together to some extent. So, it’s been very difficult that way.”

He said his sister-in-law was among the LEAP workers who were evacuated from the building moments before it blew up.

“You know, that’s how small this town is,” Peck said. “She witnessed the explosion from across the street. It affects us all.”

Randy Hall, a state representative and fire chief in nearby East Dixfield, said he can’t help but think about the impact on the small fire department and its role in the town and beyond.

“Farmington is the hub of the firefighting service here,” Hall said. “And those men, those men that ended up in that hole, they were the core of that hub.”

***

Investigators completed their site work on Thursday, but the investigation will continue into this week. The key questions to answer will be: What caused the propane leak? Why wasn’t it detected earlier? What caused the explosion to ignite?

“With today’s technology, I don’t know how we didn’t know about that leak before Monday,” said Landry, adding that the heating system had been serviced multiple times after its installation.

Funeral arrangements for Capt. Bell had not been made but the family said it would be a private service.

As the week wore on, glimmers of good news started to shine through.

Firefighters from across the state, from Westbrook, Augusta, Waterville, had come to town to take shifts covering Farmington. They are led by Interim Chief Tim Hardy, whose son TD was among the injured.

The younger Hardy was released from the hospital on Thursday. Hastings was released Wednesday. Both got a police escort and procession from Portland to Farmington. People lined the local streets and cheered all the way to the fire station.

Theodore Baxter was upgraded from critical to fair condition and was transferred out of the ICU at Maine Med. Lord had improved from critical to serious condition at Mass General.

Terry Bell and Scott Baxter were still in critical condition Saturday afternoon but were improving, too.

The owners of Western Maine Development Group offered to let LEAP use 15,000 square feet of office space in Wilton rent-free.

Donations poured in from everywhere, to the families of the injured and to the townspeople who were working overtime to restore normalcy.

“What a great place we live in,” Sheriff Nichols said, thinking about how the community responded to tragedy.

Less than 72 hours after the explosion, Bunker and other firefighters were back at the food stands they run each year at the Farmington Fair as a fundraiser.

Standing in the back of one of the small booths, Bunker said it was important for the firefighting family to be together while they heal and mourn in the wake of the tragedy and await the news of the other wounded men. He said each member of the department and all of those involved in the response or impacted by the explosion would process the trauma differently over time, but they would continue to look out for one another.

A lot of thoughts around town returned to Lord. If he didn’t show up early, no one may have smelled the gas. And though there were only 10 people evacuated, the office would have been fuller by 9:30 a.m., when an employee training session was scheduled.

Lord has been held up as a hero. But his scars, and those of many others in the community, will be visible for years to come.

Morning Sentinel reporters Taylor Abbott and Meg Robbins contributed to this story.

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