The Lewiston Daily Sun covered the tragic crash of two firetrucks at an Auburn intersection, which left two men died in the first hours. Another died soon after. Lewiston Daily Sun

AUBURN – Seventy-five years ago, a freak accident at the corner of Court and Main streets saw two firetrucks fly into each other, leaving two firefighters dead while crushing a police officer who had been directing traffic.

“Fate struck with full fury,” the Lewiston Evening Journal said of the three deaths.

Auburn police Officer Norman Philbrick Lewiston Daily Sun

A handful of other firefighters and unlucky motorists were injured, some of them badly.

July 7, 1949, ranks as the deadliest day for first responders in the history of Lewiston and Auburn, each of which lost personnel in the wreck.

The circumstances that led to the collision were bizarre.

Shortly after 5 p.m., an Auburn truck had been dispatched to fight a two-alarm fire on Turner Street.

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Lewiston quickly sent a spare truck across the river to be on standby in case another fire or other emergency arose.

Somehow the two vehicles wound up racing into the intersection at the same time.

Auburn police Officer Norman Philbrick’s service revolver wound up bent at nearly a 90-degree angle when he was crushed between two firetrucks as he tried to stop them from colliding at an Auburn intersection on July 7, 1949. Auburn Police Department

Auburn police Officer Norman Philbrick, caught between the trucks while desperately trying to prevent them from smashing into each other, was crushed so badly that his service revolver bent at a nearly 90-degree angle, an enduring symbol of the force of the crash.

Even before the wreckage was cleared, Auburn Fire Chief Ralph Harnden stood staring at the scene, his hat in his right hand while his left hand brushed his bald head.

A photo caption said he seemed to be asking himself, “How on earth did this happen?”

Despite investigations by both cities and a slew of lawsuits, the answer remains fuzzy.

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A grand jury that examined the incident found nobody at fault and commended the personnel involved.

Reporter Ed Kisonak of the Journal reported that Philbrick had been directing traffic at the busy junction when both firetrucks suddenly raced toward it. He tried to signal them to stop, but each apparently thought it could proceed.

Philbrick, nearly sliced in half by a flying ax, never had a chance as the vehicles clobbered him from both sides.

Two firefighters died in the hours afterward — Lewiston Capt. Russell Tarr, 48, and Marcien Vallee, 26.

Lewiston Firefighter Marcien Vallee Lewiston Daily Sun

Lewiston fire Department Capt. Russell Tarr Lewiston Daily Sun

The day following the disaster, the Journal bemoaned the demise of Pacific War veterans who “came home to meet death on a peaceful corner of their home community.”

It also expressed doubt that the mystery of how it happened would ever be resolved.

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Official inquiries, the Journal said, “may not reveal the whole story,” in part because several key witnesses did not survive to tell their side of the tale.

Each of the truck drivers said they thought Philbrick had given them the go-ahead to proceed into the intersection.

On its face, it made more sense for the Auburn truck, racing to reach a fire, to be in a hurry than for the one from Lewiston to make haste since it was merely going to a firehouse on Court Street to serve as a backup unit.

The driver of the Lewiston truck, Romeo Dumais, told a Journal reporter, Hal Gosselin, from his hospital bed that he was sure Philbrick had signaled him to keep going. He also insisted his truck never hit the officer.

When the vehicles collided, Dumais said, he saw “a flash of white,” because Auburn’s truck was painted white, then felt himself flying into the street alongside his captain.

“I got up and crawled on my knees,” Dumais said, and then began trying to tug Tarr free of the wreckage.

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A neighbor, Eva Connors, said she saw both trucks “traveling quite fast” and believed the one from Lewiston had almost cleared the intersection when the Auburn truck struck its left rear side after it hit Philbrick. She said it pushed him between the trucks before they overturned.

She said Philbrick gave the Lewiston driver a signal to proceed while signaling to the Auburn truck to stop.

Fern Dugas, an employee of the nearby Auburn Fruit Store, said he heard the second alarm for the fire and asked Philbrick the location of the blaze. The officer told him it was on Turner Street, then hustled out to direct traffic.

Philbrick beckoned for the Lewiston truck to proceed, Dugan said, and held up his hand to stop the Auburn vehicle.

“Lewiston’s truck passed in the back of him and Auburn’s truck was upon him,” Dugan said, adding “I saw him no more” after the Auburn truck plowed into the one from Lewiston.

The chaotic scene in Auburn in July 1949 after two firetrucks collide at the junction of Court and Main streets as one raced toward a fire. Two firefighters and a police officer were killed in the deadliest day for public safety officers in the history of Lewiston and Auburn. Lewiston Daily Sun

He estimated that the Lewiston truck was moving at 45 mph while Auburn’s truck was going a little faster.

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But officials with each fire department denied their trucks were going more than 35 mph, the speed limit, and insisted they never exceeded the limit on their way to fires and accidents.

A driver who had pulled over to allow the trucks to pass, Richard Taylor of Auburn, was injured when one of the trucks wound up crushing his car as he sat behind the wheel.

Androscoggin County Attorney Edward Beauchamp said after the grand jury completed a probe of the crash that “no indictments were returned in this case, but the facts were given careful consideration and there was a searching examination from all angles.”

Wherever the fault lay, the costly crash killed three men serving the public and injured others, leaving widows, fatherless children and lawsuits in its wake.

Whose fault it was, a heavy topic of discussion in its day, matters less as time moves on.

What is certain is that accidents happen despite everyone’s best intentions. Disasters sometimes strike without warning. And the pain of untimely deaths never quite leaves.

Auburn retired Philbrick’s badge number — 17 — and a plaque honoring him was installed in 1953 at Auburn Hall.

The Lewiston Fire Department lists on its memorial the two firefighters who died that day in 1949 among the nine men it has lost on duty over the years.

It lost two firefighters in one day once before, on Christmas Eve in 1909, when a burning building on Lisbon Street collapsed as they battled the blaze.

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