AUGUSTA – Officials say what caused a buildup of propane to explode in Farmington in a blast that killed a firefighter will never be known.
“Not with any specificity to what the exact source of the explosion was,” Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said Friday. “But it could have been any number of things. It could have been somebody using a light switch, it could have been the furnace coming on, it could have been any number of sources that happened at that very exact time,” Thomas said during an interview at his office in Augusta.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office on Friday released its’ report about the cause of the Sept. 16, 2019 explosion at the non-profit LEAP agency that took the life of Capt. Michael Bell and injured seven others.
The report says safety barriers were added around a heating unit on Sept. 10 and an auger used hit a buried gas line to the building’s 500-gallon propane tank.
LEAP maintenance man Larry Lord found the tank empty on Friday, Sept. 13 and had it filled. On Monday, another maintenance man became dizzy and he and Lord discovered the tank was again empty. The building was evacuated.
Just 15 minutes after the fire department arrived, the building exploded.
“Captain Bell was on the first floor. He was involved in the evacuation of the building with the fire crews, and the chief, and Larry and some of the other firefighters were in the basement or adjacent to it,” Thomas said. “There was evidence by the [gas] meter that there was gas there someplace but not exactly sure where it was so that’s what they were trying to assess at the time when the explosion took place.”
Six firefighters and Lord were injured in the blast, and Lord remains in the hospital.
Investigators learned the location of the buried propane line was a point of contention for the Manchester, Maine company hired to install the barriers, Thomas said. That, the fire marshal says, sends a strong message.
He is not advocating for gas lines to be added to DigSafe – a registry for buried utility lines.
“There are preventive measures that can be taken prior so that something like this doesn’t happen again,” Thomas said. “That’s one of the strongest points that we see.”