When an explosion destroyed a building, killed a firefighter and injured seven more people Monday in Farmington, Maine, it battered a local fire department with a tight-knit "brotherhood" and family ties that run deep.
Captain Michael Bell was killed in the blast, while his brother, Farmington Fire Chief Terry Bell, remained in critical condition Tuesday night. So did Captain Scott Baxter and his father, firefighter Theodore Baxter, according to the Maine Medical Center.
While his own son, also a Farmington fire captain, was recovering in the hospital, Acting Fire Chief Tim Hardy spoke at a news conference Tuesday to assure the community that their 911 calls would still be answered.
The massive propane explosion, the biggest one a state inspector said he'd ever seen, has "really hit home with all of us," Hardy said.
"It's a brotherhood, it's a family," Hardy said. "They say we play hard and we work hard and that's where the family part of it comes from. A lot of times we're together in the best of conditions but then again we're together in the worst of conditions."
Smell of Gas, Then an Explosion
That worst of conditions came after the Farmington Fire Department was called over the smell of gas at 8:07 a.m. Monday. Police said the building blew apart when firefighters were investigating the scene; the force of the blast damaged buildings and vehicles nearby and sent smoke and dust high into the sky.
In all, five of the town fire department's seven officers were hurt or killed in the blast at the housing nonprofit Life Enrichment Advancing People.
Two other firefighters were hurt, along with Larry Lord, a maintenance officer at the LEAP facility who was flown to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to be cared for. Lord may not have been a firefighter, but the 60-year-old was hailed as a hero at Tuesday's news conference.
"He was responsible for evacuating at least a dozen or so employees and, without his quick actions, I think it would have been a much more horrific tragedy," Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck said.
The wreckage looked much the same Tuesday as it had the day before.
State fire marshal investigator Sgt. Ken Grimes said at the news conference it was "a tremendous explosion ... the worst one I've seen as far as structural damage and neighborhood damage."
There is no immediate suspected cause at the start of the painstaking investigation, which also involves the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Grimes said. He may be able to report a suspected cause by Friday.
Farmington Fire's Local Ties
The Farmington community has rallied around its fire department, which has been and continues to be led by its own.
Both Terry Bell and acting chief Hardy were born and raised in Farmington, a town of about 7,600 just under two hours north of Portland.
They both graduated from Mt. Blue High School in town, joined the town fire department and climbed the ranks after attending Maine State Fire Academy, according to their biographies on the town's website. Bell joined the department in 1977 and Hardy the year after; Bell was hired as the town's first full-time fire chief, a role he's held for 19 years.
"We've all come up through the ranks together," Hardy said.
Gov. Janet Mills is also from Farmington and knows the Bell family, she said in a Facebook video, adding, "Please join me in keeping them in your thoughts and prayers."
A stillness hung in the air in Farmington Tuesday as the town awaited updates on the condition of the wounded.
"Text messages, a phone call, something," Selectwoman Paula Nason said.
Community and Family Support
The "overwhelming" community support for the department has manifested in donations of food, drinks and more, Hardy said, as well as a helping hand from fire departments near and far. They will be assisting with day-to-day calls while the Farmington department focuses on its needs, especially those of the family of Capt. Michael Bell, a 30-year veteran of the force.
"We will recover from this and we will eventually be back to full staff. This is going to take some time," Hardy said.
He said Bell's wife is receiving excellent support herself: "Under the circumstances and conditions right now, she's doing well."
Bell's body was returned to Farmington from an autopsy in Augusta Tuesday in a procession that brought Mainers out to pay their respects all along the route.
Hardy's son, Capt. Timothy D. Hardy, was one of two firefighters upgraded to satisfactory condition at Maine Medical Center Tuesday night. Earlier, the son had encouraged the father to go attend to the duties of his new, hopefully temporary job.
"I'm very lucky, I have a very supportive wife, I have a very supportive son. My son and I have worked together in some serious conditions, some serious fire scenes," Acting Chief Hardy said at the news conference. "They have both told me that, for the time being, i'm where I need to be to help with the community."
Among the funds being set up to accept donations is the Farmington Fireman's Benevolent Association, where people will be able to contribute funds for the firefighters and their families.
necn's Dustin Wlodkowski contributed to this report.