Authorities gather at the scene of an explosion at 1342 Intervale Road in New Gloucester on Saturday afternoon. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The dispatcher on the phone pleaded with Keith “Tater” Forest to grab the boy and get out of the smoking house while he still could.

Forest, 51, felt his lungs beginning to fail as he choked on thick, white smoke. He didn’t see how they could get the unmoving body of his neighbor Lado Lodoka, 44, out of the utility room and away from the scattered remains of the exploded boiler.

Lado Lodoka Photo courtesy of Regina Phillips

He tried to pass along the dispatcher’s message to Lodoka’s young son: “We have to go. The fire department will be here soon.”

But the boy would not leave his dad behind. Instead, he charged again into the heat, Forest following behind.

In the days since Lodoka’s death on Saturday afternoon, members of Maine’s South Sudanese community have mourned the man they say was a beloved friend, father and leader.

Lodoka had been working on the oil-fired burner that heated his home at 1342 Intervale Road in New Gloucester when it exploded Saturday, setting the house on fire.


A spokesperson for the Office of Maine State Fire Marshal on Monday attributed the explosion to “thermal runaway” – the furnace became overloaded with fuel, causing a buildup in pressure that resulted in a steam explosion.

On Monday morning, Lodoka’s neighbor talked about the frantic moments after the boiler exploded, when Lodoka’s young son, who he believes is just 12, put his life on the line in an attempt to rescue his father.

“He was in there longer than I was,” Forest said. “I can’t even imagine the boldness that it took.”

The family declined through a friend to talk about Saturday’s events.


Forest didn’t really hear the boiler explode at his neighbor’s house – but he felt it.


After something rattled his walls shortly after noon on Saturday, he went outside to find smoke pouring from the back of the building next door. He was met by one of Lodoka’s four sons. The eldest brother was away at a basketball game, the boy told Forest, while the other three were home with their dad. Lodoka had been working on the boiler in the back of the house when they heard the explosion and the boys didn’t know where he was.

Forest said he told the boy to bring his younger brothers outside while he called 911 for help. Forest remained on the phone with dispatchers while the son returned and the pair began to search for Lodoka.

They feared he was still in the utility room, where heat and smoke continued to gush out into the cold air. But it was difficult to search the darkened room where hot chunks of the destroyed boiler still sizzled. The back door had been blown half off its hinges and was wedged mostly shut, Forest said. Both he and the boy were able to squeeze into the room several times, taking breaks when the heat and soot chased them back outside to gulp down fresh air.

“My throat was just covered in fuel,” he said. “It’s like you gargled with diesel.”

He estimates he was on the phone with 911 for about 15 minutes before help arrived. By the end of that call, the dispatcher was begging him to get to safety and wait for help.

But the boy would not leave his father behind, and Forest would not leave the child to search alone. He thinks it was on the boy’s fourth trip into the boiler room that he discovered his father’s body covered by debris.


Forest worked to clear a path to the door but could not get it open. It was the boy, he said, who found the strength to jerk the obstacle free so that they could drag Lodoka’s body into the sunlight.

Forest said it was immediately clear to him that Lodoka was dead. He said he remembers the boy going to his two young brothers to calm them down.

“He was telling them, ‘Dad’s passed out. He’s gonna go to the hospital. Everything will be fine,’ ” Forest said. “He was so good about his brothers.”


The boys, who spent half of each week living with their father, are at their mother’s home in Portland, said Deqa Dhalac, a state representative from South Portland who became friends with Lodoka nearly 20 years ago when she arrived in Maine.

Lado Lodoka, of New Gloucester, celebrates his 44th birthday in October. A leader of Maine’s South Sudanese community, Lodoka died Saturday when the oil-fired furnace in his home exploded while he was working on it. Those who knew him described him as compassionate, kind and giving. Photo courtesy of Molly McMahon

Like other members of the region’s close-knit immigrant groups, she described Lodoka as smart, compassionate man dedicated to building community wherever he went. When Dhalac co-founded Cross Cultural Community Services in Portland five years ago, naming Lodoka as the group’s first board member was a “no-brainer,” she said.


“He was the kind of person who can connect with anyone easily, she said. “His smile can light up a room, can light up a whole community.”

Dhalac said she, Lodoka and other community leaders had been planning to meet for a friendly get-together on Sunday night. Instead they met at his children’s mother’s home in Portland to mourn and to support the family. As of Monday evening, a fundraiser led by the nonprofit South Sudanese Group of Friends had raised over $27,000 for Lodoka’s family.

According to Forest, the boy who worked so hard to save his father feels guilty for not being able to do more. But Forest called the boy a hero and said the public should know about his bravery.

Because of a reporting error, this story was updated at 11 a.m. Dec. 5 to correct the spelling of the victim’s name. 

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.