A wreath hangs from a chain-link fence surrounding the almost-vacant site of the LEAP building that exploded Sept. 16, 2019, in Farmington. Donna M. Perry/Sun Journal

FARMINGTON — Stars of Hope and a Christmas wreath hang from a chain-link fence surrounding the site of the Sept. 16, 2019, fatal propane blast at the LEAP building. A mailbox post still stands out front where the building once was. Another star hangs from it.

The near-vacant lot at 313 Farmington Falls Road  is covered in snow, but part of a wooden post still bearing a partial entrance sign sticks up from the ground.

Ten-foot posts were installed in the LEAP parking lot to protect an outside air conditioning unit Sept. 10. Investigators said the post cut open the yellow propane line. Maine Department of Public Safety photo

The Office of Maine State Fire Marshal’s investigation findings released Friday revealed the deadly explosion ignited days after an underground propane line was severed during the installation of one of four bollards, drilled into the ground near the building, according to a statement released by Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Investigators concluded the propane leaked from the severed line and led to the explosion that leveled the LEAP  building, according to the statement.

But investigators said in a statement Friday the source of ignition that sparked the explosion could not be determined. Several sources of ignition are possible, including disruption of electricity, a light switch, a furnace or static, according to the statement.

Farmington Fire Rescue Capt. Michael Bell, 68, a 30-year veteran of the department, died in the explosion which also seriously or critically injured six other firefighters and LEAP maintenance supervisor Larry Lord.

Fire investigators said the bollard work was done by Techno Metal Posts of Manchester. The 10-foot-long posts were drilled into the ground about 5 feet from the building. Each was sunk about 7 feet, leaving 3 feet above ground, according to McCausland’s statement.

Ten-foot posts were installed in the LEAP parking lot to protect an outside air conditioning unit Sept. 10. Investigators said the post cut open a propane line. Maine Department of Public Safety photo

The posts were installed to protect an outside air conditioning unit next to the building. The propane line was buried about 2½ to 3 feet under the parking lot and connected the propane tank behind the property to the building through the basement wall at the rear corner. The parking lot had been paved after installation of the propane line last summer. The metal bollards are about 4 inches thick, but each had an auger head which is 10½ inches wide that allows the post to be drilled into the ground.  It was the auger head that severed the propane line encased in a plastic protective sleeve.

The posts were installed Sept. 10.

On Friday, Sept. 13, Larry Lord discovered that the 500-gallon propane tank was empty. The propane supplier to the building — C.N. Brown — was called, and the tank was filled just after noon that day, according to the statement.

The next Monday morning, a maintenance worker felt dizzy after being in the building a short time. He and Lord discovered that the propane tank was empty again. Lord called the fire department, opened windows and doors, and told the staff to leave. The fire department arrived at 8:13 a.m. and joined Lord in the basement looking for the source of the propane leak while some firefighters went elsewhere in the building to make sure it was vacant.

The building exploded at 8:28 a.m.

“It is a tragic situation all the way around. We’re all very sad to see what happened. It appears to be a situation that no one could have foreseen,” Town Manager Richard Davis said Friday. “I stand behind the Farmington Fire Rescue Department. It is a group of highly trained professional first responders who do their job bravely every day. My heart goes out to the families of Capt. Bell and Larry Lord. I hope they continue to heal and move on from this tragic accident.”

Fire investigators say no criminal charges are anticipated, according to McCausland.

“Certainly everyone has been waiting with anticipation for some of the specifics about the explosion, but none more than the firefighters who, as they do every day, put their lives at risk when they responded to the building that day. And, as we know, one of those brave firefighters paid the ultimate price,” Augusta attorney Walter McKee, who represents Capt. Bell’s family and other firefighters, said in an email Friday.

“The firefighters have been waiting to get some official word about the details of what happened here, and these findings confirmed these details. They are all looking forward to seeing the full report when it comes out so they can make some sense of how this terrible tragedy happened, and most importantly what can be done so that it never ever happens again.”

Lord, who remains hospitalized in Boston, and his family are being represented by Berman & Simmons in Lewiston.

“On behalf of the Lord family we want to thank the officials who continue to work diligently to assemble what we expect will be a thorough and revealing report,” according to a statement from Berman & Simmons attorney Steve Silin. “We are looking forward to the release of the Fire Marshal’s full conclusions, which we expect will confirm what we already understand about the nature and sequence of the compounding errors that led to this explosion and resulted in Mr. Lord’s grievous injuries.”

A damage prevention investigator for the Maine PUC cited Techno Post and owner Michael Brochu on Dec. 23 for probable violations of “excavator failure to properly notify Dig Safe” and the “excavator failed to properly premark area of proposed excavation,” according to the PUC notice. Investigator Barry Truman recommended a penalty of $500 for each violation.

LEAP’s attorney, Erin Murphy in Waterville, said Friday “we have no comment at this time.”

Agencies involved in the investigation were the Farmington Police and Fire Rescue departments; Maine State Police; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives; the Maine Attorney General’s Office; the Maine Fuel Board, which oversees fuel storage; and the Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the Dig Safe program.

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