February 14, 2013

Bath explosion claims a generous soul

Dale Fussell, a soup kitchen volunteer killed at her apartment Tuesday, had been saving to buy her own home.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BATH – Dale Fussell was known by her friends and family as a generous soul, someone who lived frugally but was eager to help others and cheer them up when they were down.

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A memorial to Dale Fussell covers a fence at 29 Bluff Road in Bath. Officials believe a loose pipe coupling at the building allowed propane gas to escape, leading to an explosion.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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Dale Fussell

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By lunchtime every Tuesday, she would be helping to prepare the evening meal at The Neighborhood Cafe, a soup kitchen run by the United Church of Christ on Congress Avenue, near her home at 29 Bluff Road.

"She knew when a friend needed a shoulder to cry on. She knew when it was time to start singing and liven people up and say, 'Hey, things could be worse in your life,"' said her friend Patti Silva.

Fussell, 64, was killed before dawn Tuesday when her building in the Atlantic Townhouse Apartments complex was demolished by an explosion.

The state Fire Marshal's Office determined that the blast at 5 a.m. was caused by a propane gas leak at 31 Bluff Road, the adjacent apartment in the duplex.

Investigators, who picked through the rubble all day Tuesday, think that a coupling between the exterior supply pipes and an interior hose that fed the heating unit loosened, so gas escaped, said Fire Marshal Joe Thomas.

The connection apparently was broken when the heater was jostled or moved, even though it was bolted to the walls.

The propane gas, which is heavier than air, would have leaked into a space a few inches deep between the interior and exterior walls, then down into the crawl space beneath the apartments, Thomas said. There is no way to know how long the gas was leaking, he said.

The building's 1939 construction would have allowed air movement to dissipate the gas, he said, but investigators surmise that the blizzard that dumped more than 2 feet of snow on Bath during the weekend could have sealed off the crawl space beneath the single-story building, allowing gas to accumulate.

An ignition source -- possibly electrical -- created an explosion that flattened the building, sent debris flying more than 200 yards and ignited an intense fire in the remains of the structure.

A memorial was created at the site Wednesday, with flowers, a card made by neighborhood children and a cross made from fence pickets.

The state Medical Examiner's Office confirmed Wednesday that the person who died in the explosion was Fussell, who lived at 29 Bluff Road for many years.

Fussell was remembered fondly by residents of the neighborhood, which came as no surprise to her daughter, Sondra Wilson, who lives in Virginia.

"She loved being around people. ... She could never meet a stranger, ever," Wilson said.

Wilson talked to her mother the day before she died.

They talked about food, as they always did, about Wilson's plans to graduate from college this summer, and about her husband, whom Wilson married in September.

They talked about Wilson's grown son, whom Fussell helped to raise.

Wilson, one of four children, said Fussell was raised in Bath.

"Even though she didn't have the means herself, she was always willing to give of herself to others in need," Wilson said.

Silva, Fussell's friend, said Fussell offered sanctuary for some people in the neighborhood.

"She would open her door: 'I have food. I have a bed. I have a sofa. I have a place you can stay that's safe, no questions asked,"' Silva said.

Silva said she met Fussell at a food pantry and encouraged her to volunteer at The Neighborhood Cafe. Fussell became a reliable regular, sometimes showing up with two grocery bags full of items she had baked the previous weekend.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The scene following Tuesday's explosion at 29-31 Bluff Road in Bath.

Photo by David Hench / Staff Writer

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A child's card was tucked under the windshield wiper of a car parked in front of Dale Ann Fussell's apartment on Wednesday.

David Hench / Staff Writer

 


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