Capt. Timothy “TD” Hardy remembers his fellow firefighters scrambling to find an electrical panel in the basement of the Life Enrichment Advancing People building the morning of Sept. 16, 2019, in Farmington. 

“And the next thing I know,” Hardy told the investigator, “I woke up.” 

Hardy’s account of last year’s explosion at the LEAP Inc. building was just one of several released this week by the Office of State Fire Marshal. The firefighters who were there on that fateful morning told investigators the same thing: 

There was no smell of propane outside of the building when they first arrived. Measurements of the air around the tank came back negative. 

In the basement of the building, it was a different story: there was no propane smell, firefighters said, but the readings were off the chart. 

And then: “Click and boom,” said Farmington Firefighter Joseph Hastings, in an interview with the fire marshal’s office three days after he was injured in the blast. 

“All of a sudden, it went whoof,” reported Theodore Baxter, a 46-year veteran of fire service who was also hospitalized as a result of the blast. 

Interviews with a handful of firefighters were released by the Office of State Fire Marshal this week, along with a 110 page review of its investigation. 

The Sept. 16 explosion at the LEAP building at 313 Farmington Falls Road claimed the life of Farmington Fire Rescue Capt. Michael Bell, and injured six other firefighters and a LEAP maintenance supervisor.  

The documents provide a glimpse into the early days of the investigation as officials zeroed-in on a propane line, severed by the installation of four pylons near the building, as the cause of the fatal blast. 

The documents, however, are heavily redacted. Some of the interviews identify the firefighters being questioned, but the questions and answers themselves are blacked out. A fire marshal’s interview with firefighter Scott Baxter, for instance, is a seven page document in which five pages are almost completely redacted. 

In the interview with Baxter, the firefighter describes the moments leading up to the explosion, but his comments about the seconds following the blast are blacked out. 

In spite of the redactions, the interviews reveal details of the events leading to the blast shortly after Farmington firefighters were sent to the building to investigate a possible propane leak. 

Hastings recalled being asked to run monitors around the propane tank and the protective pylons that stood nearby. At that point, fire crews were just responding for a report of a possible propane leak. 

“Are you getting any readings at all around the building?” Hastings was asked. 

“Nope, nothing,” Hastings said. “We couldn’t smell any propane, we smell nothing. I was getting no readings whatsoever and then they had me go over to the tank in the back parking lot, and same thing: no smell, no readings. I ran around the whole tank, I ran around the fittings.” 

Hastings told investigators a maintenance man asked him to run the monitors around the newly installed pylons, but there were no readings there, either. 

Hastings did recall seeing ice on the ground near the tanks, however. 

“There was ice on the ground and I thought that was funny, thinking, boy that’s odd,” Hastings recalled. “It’s a pretty decently warm morning and there’s no frost, and there was a good layer of ice with a shape at the bottom of the tank probably quarter of an inch thick that was laying on the ground.” 

Capt. Hardy, who was also hospitalized with injuries suffered in the blast, recalled getting to the scene and realizing the propane tank outside the building was empty with ice developing on the ground beneath it. 

Hardy also told the investigator he recalled seeing that the pavement around the newly installed pylons was heaved. 

“Like, in the pavement it looked kind of nasty around it,” Hardy said during the interview. “Why would you do that to brand new pavement?” 

Hardy then described going down into the basement of the building where he still did not smell propane, but was told that they were getting high readings down there. He remembered other firefighters looking for the electrical panels so they could shut off the power. 

“And the next thing I know,” Hardy told the investigator, “I woke up.” 

In the basement of the building, what had been a routine fire call went from uneventful to deadly in just a matter of moments. 

“I still have the monitor and I got about four steps down and I started picking up like 30 parts per million,” Hastings told the investigator, describing the readings on his monitor. “And then I got a little lower, 50. Few steps down more, 60 and at this point, I’m like (addressing a colleague) ‘… we’re picking up some lower explosive limit,’ and we both said to each other like, but I don’t smell any propane. And I said, no me either, can’t smell a lick of propane. And when I got to the basement, finally on the ground level, the alarm went into full alarm at 110 PPM, which is our max… .” 

Hastings said another firefighter moved to cut power to the building at the breaker. 

“And that’s all I remember, was he was in the door and: click and boom.” 

Hastings is asked what he remembers following hearing a click and then the blast, but his response is redacted, as are most of the remaining pages of his interview. 

The interview with Capt. Bell’s brother, Farmington Fire Rescue Chief Terry Bell, was a terse affair, according to the documents released this week. In that exchange, Bell responded to questions mostly with one word answers and said he didn’t recall many details about the original call the morning of the explosion. 

Before he was interviewed, Bell had been hospitalized for three weeks as the result of injuries sustained in the explosion.

MULTIPLE COMPLAINTS

The report, released along with the interviews, is mostly a day-to-day accounting of the investigation that began immediately after the explosion. At the start of it, fire marshal’s investigator Jeremy Damren recalls being met at the scene of the blast by a man who lived in a mobile home directly behind the LEAP building. That man, who’s name was redacted in the report, told Damren that he had complained to “various people in the parking lot of LEAP” about an odor of propane that had been prevalent around the building. 

Damren also recalled being approached by Anthony Howard, the fire chief in Industry who said he had installed the gas boiler in the basement of the LEAP building. Howard told the investigator he had concerns about the pylons that had been installed outside the building — another worker, name redacted in the report, had called Howard around the time the pylons were installed, he told the investigator, to ask where the propane line was located. 

Howard had nothing to do with installing those lines, he told the investigators, but suspected that installation of the pylons may have damaged it. 

It turns out Howard was right: Following a months-long investigation, the Office of State Fire Marshal issued a statement in January revealing the deadly explosion occurred days after an underground propane line was severed during the installation of one of four bollards, or pylons. The pylons had been drilled into the ground on Sept. 10, 2019, near the building by an employee of Techno Metal Post Maine in Manchester, according to the fire marshal’s office. 

The posts had been 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. 

When investigators excavated the blast site, they found evidence that the pylon installation had caused the leak by severing a line. 

“We located the damaged line in close proximity to the pylon that had been dug into the ground,” Damren wrote in the report. “It also should be noted that the markings from the Farmington Water District were in close proximity to the actual propane line.” 

Techno Metal Post Maine is accused of severing the propane line that went under the parking lot from the tank to the building while it installed safety bollards Sept. 10. The company’s owner, Michael Brochu, entered into a consent agreement with the Maine Public Utilities Commission for alleged violations of Dig Safe law and rules. He agreed to pay a $1,000 fine.  

The documents released this week also detail interviews with several others, including various contractors, a C.N. Brown representative, LEAP employees and others. In those documents, names are redacted and the interviews center around the processes involved in getting construction jobs done at the LEAP site. 

In one such interview, an unnamed LEAP employee tells investigators that the workers from Techno were reminded to make sure of the location of the propane line while installing the pylons. When the workers assured the LEAP employee that they had pinpointed the location of the lines, that was the end of the conversation. 

“… One of the things that I’m beating myself up a little bit (for) was I didn’t say, ‘how did you prove that? How do you know?’ the LEAP employee said. “Because I’ve dealt with (redacted) on so much stuff that I just figured they’d done what they needed to do to 100 percent ascertain that.” 

In a conversation with the worker who actually installed the pylons, the worker admits that he never contacted Dig Safe before doing the work — he had had a discussion with LEAP maintenance supervisor Larry Lord, the worker said, and was led to believe that Lord had checked with Dig Safe himself to work out where the line was located. 

“I personally did not contact Dig Safe,” the worker told investigator Ken MacMaster. “I was told he contacted Dig Safe.” 

Another official from Techno Metal Post Maine, in a separate interview, said that he also had been told — although because all names were redacted, it couldn’t be determined by whom — that Dig Safe had been consulted and that it had been established where the line was located. 

“I asked him, are you 100 percent sure you know where everything is underground,” that Techno employee told the investigator. “And he said, ‘Dig Safe has been here, we’re good to go.’ That’s it. That’s as far as I know when it comes to Dig Safe. And that’s enough for me to be able to go do the job.” 

The Techno official also said there was no smell of propane while he was installing the pylons. Other contractors involved in the job also reported being told that Dig Safe had already been consulted, with one 19-year construction veteran telling an investigator that he had even expressed concerns that they were digging to close to the line only to be reassured that it had been worked out with Dig Safe. 

Besides destroying the LEAP building, the blast heavily damaged or blew apart a number of nearby homes. Several disciplinary actions have been doled out.

Last month the Maine Fuel Board fined and suspended the license of a propane and natural gas technician for not checking for leaks after filling the propane tank at the LEAP building on Sept. 13, 2019, three days before the fatal explosion. 

George Barker entered into a consent agreement June 9 with the board and the Office of the Maine Attorney General. 

C.N. Brown Inc. of South Paris sent Barker, who worked in the company’s Farmington office, to fill a propane tank at the LEAP building at 313 Farmington Falls Road. A customer there reported it was out of fuel and had no hot water, and requested the propane tank be refilled. Barker refilled it but did not check the piping system for leaks, according to the consent agreement. 

C.N Brown and another company have been cleared of wrongdoing.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also fined LEAP $12,000 for “serious violations of health and safety regulations.” 

The explosion and resulting investigation have also spurred at least one civil suit: Larry Lord, the maintenance worker who received second- and third-degree burns over 85% of his body, is expected to file a lawsuit based on the negligence that caused the blast. 

Lord spent seven months in the hospital and required more than 20 surgeries, according to his attorney. 

Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said no criminal charges will be filed in connection with the explosion.

 

The scene of a Sept. 16, 2019, explosion at the LEAP building in Farmington. Sun Journal file photo


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