The day after the tragic explosion at 313 Farmington Falls Road, the campus comes together to honor fallen Farmington firefighter Captain Michael Bell.

By Marc Glass, September 27, 2019

Just before 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 16, the citizens of Farmington and towns as far as 30 miles away heard it — a thunderous, window-rattling boom of unknown origin and frightening force.

In the moments that followed, many people on campus cautiously exited their places of work, turning their eyes to nearby buildings and streets in search of an explanation. Some of us who work in Ferro Alumni Center, on Main Street, thought a car had jumped the curb and hit the foundation of our building.

That’s what it felt like, more than a mile from the explosion.

What's left of the two-story headquarters of LEAP, following the explosion on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.

The explosion at 313 Farmington Falls Road in Farmington destroyed the headquarters of LEAP Inc., a nonprofit that supports people with developmental, cognitive and intellectual disabilities, and displaced 30 people whose nearby homes were damaged. (Photo by Marc Glass.)

As has been widely reported in state and national media outlets, the blast at 313 Farmington Falls Road turned the two-story headquarters of LEAP Inc. into rubble and airborne debris that fell like snow a mile from the site.

Among those grievously injured by the explosion was Larry Lord, a maintenance worker at LEAP Inc., who is widely credited for saving the lives of colleagues he evacuated from the building after detecting the smell of propane gas. As reported in the Sun Journal, Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck said Lord emptied the building of “at least a dozen or so employees.” But for his “quick actions,” said Peck, “I think it would’ve been a much more horrific tragedy.”

Lord, the husband of UMF’s longtime Assistant to the Provost Sandy Lord, sustained extensive burns and was airlifted to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where, at this writing, he remains in critical condition.

The explosion also injured at least six members of the Farmington Fire Rescue Department who responded to the report of a gas smell shortly after 8 a.m.: Fire Chief Terry Bell; Captain Scott Baxter and his father, firefighter Theodore Baxter; firefighter Joseph Hastings; Captain Timothy Hardy; and Deputy Fire Chief S. Clyde Ross. Several admitted to Maine Medical Center in Portland were immediately listed in critical condition. As reported on Sept. 26, two of the firefighters remain hospitalized.

Captain Michael Bell, the brother of Chief Terry Bell and a 30-year member of the Farmington Fire Rescue Department, perished in the explosion.

A trio of Maine State Troopers lead the memorial procession of first responders that brought Captain Michael Bell home to Farmington.

Maine State Troopers lead the motorcade of first responders that brought fallen Farmington Fire Rescue Captain Michael Bell home to Farmington on Sept. 17, 2019. (Photo by Marc Glass.)

Over the course of that Monday, the people of western Maine closely followed news reports and shared what they knew of the fates of friends and neighbors on social media. Maine Governor Janet Mills quickly returned to her hometown to be apprised of the disaster and the plight of those affected. Flags were ordered lowered to half-staff statewide. The Farmington Fair, some 800 yards from the blast site, closed for the day. Downtown Farmington was eerily quiet. People here thought of little else throughout the day and into the night.

Having returned from an evening candlelight vigil held at Old South First Congregational Church in Farmington, UMF President Edward Serna shared his thoughts with the University community by email and Facebook. Two months and two weeks into the job, he expressed deep appreciation for “how closely linked the Farmington and UMF communities are and the strong sense of responsibility people have for their fellow townspeople, neighbors, and colleagues.

“Especially today, no one here is an island,” he continued. “Especially today, we are all part of the main.”

The following day, when it became known that a memorial procession of first responders would bring Captain Michael Bell home from Augusta to Farmington, UMF canceled morning classes to provide students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to pay respects to the fallen firefighter.

Among the hundreds of UMF community members that lined High and Main streets in Farmington to receive Captain Bell were many students. They chose to commit much of their suddenly free Tuesday morning to waiting for and witnessing the procession.

Davion Jackson ’21 of Lewiston, Maine, recently enlisted in the Army National Guard with plans to serve throughout his UMF career while earning a degree in Anthropology and pre-med studies. He said he attended the procession out of a sense of reverence for first responders and the dangers they face.

Willie Murray ’23 and Davion Jackson ’21 (right) somberly await the arrival of the memorial procession for Captain Michael Bell, who perished in the explosion at 313 Farmington Falls Road on Sept. 16, 2019. (Photo by Marc Glass.)

“Everyday, they go in and deal with situations where they never know what might happen. People can lose their lives. They share that in common with people who serve in the military,” Jackson said. “For me, attending was about having respect for first responders and the risks they have to take to ensure our safety.”

Willie Murray ’23 of Boston, Mass., (pictured above with his arm around Jackson), said there was no choice for him in the matter of attending. “It was about doing what was right It was about paying my respect to a man who put his life on the line during the line of duty,” Murray said. “He is a hero, we should honor and respect that.”

Georgianna Hilton ’23 of South Berwick, Maine, echoed the importance of showing respect and gratitude.

“When a first responder passes, it makes you reflect on how crucial and brave they are, and what communities and countries would be like if they weren’t there,” said Hilton, who is majoring in Political Science. “I grew up with the highest regard for police officers, firefighters, people who serve in the armed forces, and veterans because not everyone can do what they can.”

Georgi Hilton awaits the memorial procession for Captain Michael Bell.

Georgianna Hilton ’23 (Photo by Marc Glass.)

Of the decision to cancel classes, Hilton said UMF made the right call.

“If we don’t take time to reflect and be thankful, we lose sight of a bigger picture and our place in the wider community,” she said. “I am proud to be a part of a campus that showed its respect this way because respect is a core value to me.”

Joe Haggerty ’20, from Scarborough, Maine, felt compelled to be present for three reasons.

“First and foremost, I wanted to pay my respects. I would have felt terrible had I not attended,” said Haggerty, who is majoring in secondary education with a concentration in social studies and a minor in Spanish. “I also wanted to witness the togetherness of the community, which I had never felt so powerfully in my four years until that moment. Finally, I wanted to acknowledge the commitment and loyalty of the first responders that helped our community that day.”

Joe Haggerty (right) awaits the arrival of the memorial procession.

Joe Haggerty ’20 (right) was among the hundreds of students who lined High and Main streets in Farmington to honor Captain Michael Bell. (Photo by Marc Glass.)

Anna Good ’23 of Steep Falls, Maine, said she remains deeply saddened for those affected by the explosion, but the memorial procession gave her “a sense of pride to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

Anna Good awaits the memorial procession for Captain Michael Bell.

Anna Good ’23 (Photo by Ryan Mastrangelo.)

Good said that as the Farmington Fire Rescue truck slowly made its way up High Street, she “thought about how each day of our lives is valued and how we should treat it as so. And I thought about how Captain Bell deserves all the respect in the world for choosing to spend his time helping others, even when you don’t know what the next minute could hold.

“What he did was very brave of him,” she continued. “I think everyone should have a little of that bravery at work in their lives.”

At all home athletic contests scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 28, UMF teams will be accepting donations for the LEAP Explosion Fund established by the United Way of the Tri-Valley Area, the Farmington Firemen’s Benevolent Association, The Farmington Disaster Relief Fund and the GoFundMe fund established for Larry Lord.