Tragedy on a Smaller Scale

If you were following my Facebook or Twitter feeds yesterday, then you know that yesterday morning, my small town was shocked when an entire building exploded due to a propane leak. The blast was so strong that it could be heard 30 miles away. Staff at the building had arrived to a smell of propane. They called the fire department, which arrived when the building had already been evacuated thanks to the efforts of the building’s maintenance manager, Larry Lord. When first responders entered the building, the entire place exploded, killing Capt. Michael Bell and injuring Chief Terry Bell; Capt. Timothy Hardy; Capt. Scott Baxter; his father, Theodore Baxter; Joseph Hastings, Deputy Fire Chief Clyde Ross, and Larry Lord.

I was on campus when it happened, about a mile away from the explosion. The lights flickered, but I’d been blowdrying my hands when it happened, so I didn’t hear anything unusual. Then my son texted to say the high school was locked down. At the same time, a whole ton of sirens started pealing out across town, heading away from the town center where I work and off toward the direction of the high school.

Tomas assured me nothing huge seemed to be happening there, though. There’d been a large explosion that had rattled the roof, and they’d been put in lock down. I started asking friends and checking on Facebook, and that’s where I first heard others had heard the explosion as well. Some guessed it was a propane facility down the road. I heard of plumes of smoke billowing.

I went outside the library to see if I could just find out what was happening. It looked like it was a snow flurry. Tiny tufts of white floating to the ground. I picked one up. It was insulation. (I take back every snide remark I’ve ever made about people in crisis situations not turning and running away, but instead picking up unidentifiable so they can look at them better. (Chernobyl, I’m looking at you.) When you’re in the middle of something like that, you just want to know what’s happening. You’re not thinking of anything else.)

Soon after that, we began to find out the details, even as more and more sirens headed to the site. Pictures and video came out, along with the word that a firefighter had lost his life. The whole day was just sort of derailed for everyone around me, though it feels trivial to say it in the face of how much this cost others. The blast blew doors and walls off homes around it, smashing in windows and destroying property. I realized I’d met the man who’d died on multiple occasions, and I discovered this morning the wife of the injured maintenance manager is a friend from work. Farmington’s a small town of only around 8,000 people. If you don’t know someone, you certainly know a lot of the same people as that person.

This morning the slain firefighter’s body was brought back to town from the medical examiner’s office in Augusta. The streets were lined with people who’d come out to pay their respects. It’s all still surreal.

The closest thing I can compare it to is my experience with 9/11. Not knowing details and finding them out as they trickled in. The feeling of shock as it all becomes clear. This wasn’t any terrorist act. It was an accident, they believe, but it still feels like a gut punch. There’s still so much that’s unknown. 11 families lost their homes. What are they going to do? Larry Lord is at Massachusetts General Hospital with burns over half his body, broken bones, and trauma. It’s estimated he’ll be there for 4 months to recover. (You can donate to a fundraiser for him here. Please do.) Pets have gone missing from the area. Did they die, or will they be found? What will happen to LEAP, the organization that owned the building that exploded? They help local people with disabilities, and they hire or have hired a number of people I know or am friends with. What will happen to those jobs, and to the people they were serving?

It seems like there are a hundred small tragedies tied into the larger one. MC had been looking forward to going to the Farmington Fair all week. She was set to go with her class at school to see the animals, and then with us in the evening to ride the rides. The fair closed for the day, and she was in tears when both trips fell through.

Each one of these impacts is significant to the person impacted, though it feels sometimes like some deserve much more attention than others. Why should I feel that bad about what happened to my daughter when my friend’s husband is in such bad shape, and when someone died and others lost their houses? But sorrow isn’t a competition. Everyone should grieve and move forward together. It was wonderful to see so many people attend the processional for Captain Bell. To see the community come together like that. It gives me hope we’ll continue to come together to support each other as we pick up whatever pieces may have fallen to the ground, be they big or small.

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