FARMINGTON — A fire captain was killed and seven other people — including six firefighters — were injured Monday morning when a building exploded, apparently due to a propane leak, according to officials.

Capt. Michael Bell, 68, a 30-year member of the Farmington Fire Rescue Department and brother of the department’s chief, died in the blast at 313 Farmington Falls Road, according to Stephen H. McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

The explosion occurred minutes after firefighters responded to a report of a gas smell shortly after 8 a.m. at the LEAP offices, which had recently been renovated and expanded.

LEAP, which stands for Life Enrichment Advancing People, provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to the nonprofit organization.

Bell was the second Maine firefighter this year to be killed in the line of duty, according to reports.

A preliminary investigation indicates the explosion was caused by propane gas, according to Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck Jr., who spoke at a news conference near the fire station on Farmington Falls Road.

Firefighters were called to scene at 8:07 a.m. for a smell of propane, according to McCausland. The explosion occurred minutes later. Residents of Hartford, about 30 miles away, reportedly heard the explosion.

The two-story LEAP building and a new addition recently opened and was “flattened,” McCausland wrote in his news release.

Fire Rescue Chief Terry Bell Sr., 62, was among the seriously injured, as was LEAP maintenance worker Larry Lord, 60, of Jay. Bell was taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland. Lord was flown to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, McCausland said.

The others who were injured were Capt. Tim “TD” Hardy, 40; Capt. Scott Baxter, 37; and his father, firefighter Theodore Baxter, 64; and firefighter Joseph Hastings, 24, according to McCausland. They were taken to Maine Medical Center.

Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Clyde Ross was also injured. He was treated and released from Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington.

A procession of firetrucks Monday afternoon took Bell’s body to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Augusta. A procession returning his body was planned for Tuesday morning, although details were not available Monday night.

The Bells are part of a firefighting family that included their father, the late Jack Bell, who spent nearly 50 years on the department before he died at 80 in 2009.

Most of the LEAP staff had exited the building by the time it exploded, according to Amanda Simoneau, director of Franklin County Emergency Management Agency.

“We have one person burned with a leg injury who was LifeFlighted to Mass. General,” said Darryl Wood, executive director of LEAP.

Lord made sure employees evacuated the building. Wood referred to Lord as a hero.

“The most important thing, right now, is the people that were injured are our No. 1 priority,” Wood said. “Everything else will come after.”

Emergency workers and Lord put their safety aside to take care of other people involved, he said.

“There are a lot of heroes here,” Wood said.

Simoneau said, “They began the evacuation at 8:07 a.m., and the explosion came … at 8:28. There was time for most of (the LEAP employees) to get out.”

The Office of the Maine State Fire Marshal and Maine State Police are investigating the cause of the explosion.

The explosion resulted in spectacular devastation. Insulation, paperwork, wood and other items from the LEAP building covered a wide area, including Bjorn Memorial Park and High Street.

State fire investigators were joined at the scene by investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The two agencies will begin processing the scene Tuesday to try and pinpoint the source of the explosions, officials said.

State police, local police, multiple fire departments, Farmington Public Works Department and Maine Department of Transportation also responded.

Emergency responders wore masks as the insulation and dust blew around the scene and streets. Mobile homes behind the LEAP building were damaged, and windows at a High Street building were blown out.

Following the blast, the Farmington Fair closed for the day, as did some businesses, including the Narrow Gauge Cinema. The fair is scheduled to reopen Tuesday at its regularly scheduled time and will be accessible from all entrances.

Gov. Janet Mills ordered flags flown at half-staff.

Route 2 was to remain closed until at least Tuesday evening, according to police. Traffic was being detoured to Route 156, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.

The MDOT said beginning at 6 a.m. Tuesday, Route 2 will be closed in the area of High Street and Farmington Falls Road, effecting traffic from both directions.

High Street will be closed from Franklin Avenue to the Farmington Falls Road. Traffic will be rerouted to the Whittier Road via road closure signs and barricades.

Road closure signs will be posted at the intersection of Farmington Falls Road and Main Street. There will also be road closure signs on Route 2 in the area of Route 156 intersection.

The explosion, Bell’s death and the injuries, which were reported by news organizations nationwide, shocked the community.

“All of us are one big family,” Police Chief Jack Peck Jr. said. “We all know the fire chief. We all know the firefighter killed today. It affects us tremendously. We all feel for his family as well as the firefighter family. It affects us deeply.”

Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. was one of the first at the scene of the blast and helped pull people out of the building, Peck said.

Nichols said he spent a year in Iraq and that was as close as he could come to explain the extent of devastation.

“I have never seen destruction like that in my career,” Nichols said. “I have been in law enforcement 35 years and I have never seen anything like this in my life, except overseas.”

The firefighters who were injured were part of Farmington’s full-time staff. Nichols said their injuries will significantly affect Farmington and other communities.

Fire departments from around the area are helping to cover for the Farmington department.

The Farmington Fire Rescue Department’s ladder truck was damaged and is out of service, Peck said. A ladder truck from a department in Kennebec County was being sent to the fire station.

Mills, who is from Farmington, also responded to the scene.

“We are a strong community,” Mills said. “We are a very close-knit community.”

The governor said she and others want to protect other communities from such tragic events. She said she and other officials will work to make sure the cause of the explosion is found and is not allowed to happen again.

“Meanwhile, our hearts go out to all of the families of the injured and deceased, and all of the people of this community, of which I am a proud member,” Mills said.

Several mobile homes behind the LEAP building were damaged. Randy Dean, landlord of the mobile home park, said 11 homes have been destroyed and 30 people have been displaced. Dean gave the contact information of the displaced residents to Maine State Police, who he said are helping to figure out accommodations.

“I am just thankful that none of my residents have serious injuries and were able to walk away,” Dean said. “Many were home and present at the time of the explosion. My heart goes out to the first responders that were on the scene.”

Locals officials said Bell became a lieutenant in 1983, was promoted to assistant chief the following year and to deputy chief in 1991. He was named chief in 2000.

A Farmington native, he graduated from the Maine State Fire Academy in 1981 and, in 1991, became the town’s emergency management director.

LEAP provides services to people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities in western and central Maine. It recently celebrated its 38th year offering home and community services, including individualized residential care, adult case management, respite care and training for community volunteers.

The building was only a couple of weeks old, Farmington Selectman Scott Landry said. A hole is all that is left.

“The new building is spread all over creation,” Landry said.

Meg Robbins and Taylor Abbott, staff writers with the Morning Sentinel, contributed to this story, and information from The Associated Press was used in this story.


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