November 13, 2012

Orrington struggles to move on after state's deadliest fire in two decades

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

ORRINGTON -- The house, charred black from the inside out, was still standing but unlivable. The acrid smell of smoke hung in the air. Firefighters and inspectors were long gone but yellow caution tape still formed a perimeter around the property. The only signs of life were a minivan parked in the driveway, blocked in front by a plastic children's car.

click image to enlarge

Authorities respond to a fire on Dow Road in Orrington on Saturday. The fire started when pizza boxes near a woodstove were ignited.

AP file photo

When Christine Johnson was released Tuesday from a Bangor hospital, she didn't have a home or family to return to.

"My heart breaks for her," said Lisa Shaw, a resident of Orrington, the site of Maine's deadliest fire in two decades. The blaze claimed the lives of Johnson's husband, Ben, and her three young children, Ben, Leslie and Ryan. "I don't know if I could come back from that."

"I have no idea how you go on," said Tami Healy, whose daughter went to school with Leslie. As a mother, "it's my worst nightmare."

Residents of the small town south of Bangor struggled Tuesday to move on from the weekend tragedy. Some talked of the importance of checking the safety of their homes in light of the revelation that the Johnson's home had no working smoke detectors.

Some were forced to have painful conversations with their school-aged children, who lost a pair of classmates.

"My daughter, she didn't want to believe it was true," said Healy, who was an occasional substitute teacher at the elementary school. "She feels very sad that she's never going to see them again."

Orrington Fire Chief Michael Spencer worried about the town's firefighters.

"Some things don't leave you," he said, adding that a handful of them were called to another fire the next day.

But mostly people prayed and grieved for Christine Johnson, who at 31 has lost her husband and children. A fourth child died of sudden infant death syndrome in 2007, not long before their youngest, Ryan, was born.

Chris York, who lives next door to the Johnsons on Dow Road, said that his wife woke to the sounds of screaming early Saturday morning. It was awful, heart-wrenching screaming. Outside, the Yorks outside and saw the glow of flames through the trees. They called 911 and waited for crews to arrive. Another set of neighbors helped Christine Johnson from the low roof of the breezeway between the house and garage.

York said firefighters attacked the flames aggressively. Spencer said the crew went above and beyond the call, but there was nothing they could do to save Christine Johnson's family.

"You don't ever want to feel what she's feeling," said York, who sometimes saw the Johnson children playing in the yard this summer.

Allen Snell, superintendent of schools for Orrington and Dedham, said the last couple days have been rough. He's been a school administrator for more than 40 years and has dealt with tragedy before, but nothing like this.

Roy Allen, principal at Center Drive School, said kids were handling the tragedy well, all things considered. In many ways, he said, it was a learning opportunity. Many children likely will go home and talk to their parents about fire safety.

Lisa Shaw, who lives down the road from the Johnsons, drove to work early Saturday morning past the fire. She knew it was bad. She has three kids, including one in sixth grade at the Orrington school. The day after the fire, the family checked all their smoke detectors. They created a plan for what to do if something like that should happen to them.

"I bet a lot of people are doing the same thing," Shaw said.

Spencer said if anything good can come out of the fire, it's a renewed focus on safety.

"A lot of people think it can't happen to them," he said.

In the coming days, there will be memorial services for Benjamin Johnson III and his three children. Christine Johnson has assisted in the preparation.

While the Johnsons were not lifelong residents of Orrington, they are a part of the town now, forever etched into its history. On Dec. 9, at a bowling area in nearby Brewer that the family frequented, there will be a fundraiser for Christine Johnson.

Spencer said he expects a good turnout. He expects the town to come together.

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