FARMINGTON — Fire Capt. Michael Bell’s helmet, emblazoned with No. 406, rested on a pedestal exactly one year after an explosion claimed his life.

The Tower 3 fire truck served as a backdrop Wednesday, as an over-sized flag snapped in the breeze from its place on a hanger under the aerial truck’s platform. The jacket of Bell’s turnout gear — complete with flashlight sticking out of a pocket — hung on a display stand with his pants and boots on the ground below it. A wreath with evergreens and flowers with a red ribbon and bows was on display in front of the truck.

Drivers of some vehicles slowed down and others honked horns as they passed the memorial at the former LEAP Inc. building’s site at 313 Farmington Falls Road. The building was completely destroyed Sept. 16, 2019, during the fatal propane gas explosion.

During the anniversary observance, several people stood on the lawn of Bjorn Park across the street. Stephen Charles II of Farmington, who is a member of the Phillips Fire Department, was one of them. He had responded with the Phillips department right after the tragedy occurred.

“It showed the brotherhood. All the fire departments and massive support for Farmington was incredible that day and the weeks following,” he said. “It’s after something like this happens you get a little jumpy. Not in a bad way. It keeps you on your toes.”

Prior to a press conference at the site, a dispatcher sounded the last call from Franklin to Capt. Bell six times.

“‘Hearing no response, the last alarm for Capt. Michael Bell, killed in a gas explosion in the line of duty on Sept. 16, 2019, has been sounded. And now with Brother Bell completing his task of 30 years of service to the citizens and the Farmington Fire Department, the sounding of Box 333 will now be struck. Franklin RCC clear,'” the dispatcher said, which was affirmed later by interim Communication Center Manager Amanda Simoneau.

Capt. Michael Bell died Sept. 16, 2019 after an explosion following a reported gas leak at the LEAP building in Farmington. Photo courtesy town of Farmington

Bell, 68, of Farmington, was one of seven firefighters responding to a report of a smell of propane just after 8 a.m. that day. The building blew up shortly after they began investigating the leak. The explosion killed Bell, and seriously or critically injured six other firefighters including his brother, Chief Terry Bell, and LEAP maintenance worker Larry Lord. Lord was credited with saving several LEAP Inc. workers’ lives as he evacuated the building before the explosion.

About 30 people were dislocated when the explosion damaged nearby homes and businesses.

Two private services were held earlier Wednesday morning at the Fire Rescue Station and at a cemetery.

Gov. Janet Mills, who was born and raised in Farmington, arrived before the start of the conference. She had come to join friends, family, colleagues and the community to commemorate the sad occasion, she said. She presented Chief Bell with a bouquet of flowers.

“Very rarely, an event occurs that is so devastating that it tests the limits of a community’s strengths,” Town Manager Richard Davis said. “Such was the case one year ago, on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.”

In part, he went on to say, “We lost a beloved brother, firefighter and dedicated civil servant, Capt. Michael Bell, that day. Capt. Bell gave his life in the line of duty, bravely serving his fellow citizens. There are no words that are adequate to express our sorrow for the loss and gratitude for the life of Capt. Bell. He will never be forgotten.”

The severity of the injuries varied among firefighters, but they have all recovered or are recovering well, Davis said. Lord is still recovering from his injuries.

“The same event that tested limits of our strength also served to highlight our empathy, compassion and love for one another,” Davis said. “Never was this more evident than in the community’s response to the disastrous event.”

Several funds were set up and collected more than $330,000 to help individuals affected or displaced by the explosion, he said. There was also a separate fund set up for Lord that raised over $100,000.

Davis thanked all organizations, firefighters, businesses and individuals who participated in some way to help after the tragedy.

On the morning of the explosion “no one could imagine how many lives would change forever,” Deputy Fire Rescue Chief Tim Hardy said. “Within no time the word had spread through the fire department family and throughout the state and the support came pouring in. We can’t begin to thank all fire departments across the state for the coverage and the support they provided to Farmington Fire Department during our recovery. The support that was provided for months, while our department was healing, will never be forgotten.”

He thanked the fire departments that stood guard at Maine Medical Center in Portland for their caring and support for the injured firefighters and their families. He also thanked representatives of medical facilities, emergency medical services, and local, county and state law enforcement agencies for their support, expertise and assistance. In addition, he thanked the local community and citizens that came in from the state and across the nation.

Hardy expressed gratitude to the members of the Farmington Fire Rescue Department and their families for their continued support as “we continue this journey. To Diana (Capt. Bell’s wife and his daughters), Michelle, Danielle and Sara we thank you for your willingness to share your husband and father, Capt. Michael Bell, over the many years as a member of the Farmington Fire Department family.”

He said Capt. Bell was dedicated to the fire department and community and was one of the more active and dedicated members of the department.

Darryl Wood, executive director of the Life Enrichment Advancing People organization, said “One year ago today, an event that we are all now familiar with changed the course of history for many people. The new LEAP building, virtually complete after years of planning and fundraising, was gone in an instant. People were injured. One died. Over a dozen witnessed the explosion and hundreds more heard about it and wondered ‘is my loved one OK.'”

The entire Farmington community was knocked off balance, he said.

Instead of rehashing the tragedy, he said, “I am here to make sure people understand the inherent goodness of the human spirit, particularly caregivers, as evidenced by what I witnessed over the last year.”

“Under extreme duress, the first responders and public officials took control of the situation, initiated the first aid and evacuated people to the hospital,” he said.

A team at Franklin Memorial Hospital organized quickly and triaged people, and provided care and transfer without delay, Wood said.

“The people of LEAP never missed a beat in quality of care or necessary business functions. This was all day one,” he said.

In ending, Wood said, “We cannot undo the events of Sept. 16, but we can recognize the resilience showed by so many people.”

He spoke Wednesday, to point out that resilience.

“This is a tribute to resilience; may we all learn from it,” he said.

The tragedy led to changes such as liquefied propane gas now being included in the Maine Dig Safe law, and more education and awareness surrounding the dangers of propane leaks.


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