Lost tanker haunts Maine firefighters as water runs out

By Nick Sambides Jr.
The Bangor Daily News

LAKEVILLE, Maine — An accident that destroyed a tanker truck and killed a firefighter two years ago haunted firefighters Wednesday when a lack of water at a critical moment contributed to the destruction of a handmade log cabin on Rocky Road.

No one was injured, but three people and several pets were left homeless when the cabin at 66 Rocky Road went up in flames shortly after the fire was reported at 10:30 a.m., Springfield Fire Chief Mark Kuester said.

The first firefighters who arrived doused the fire at what appeared to be its starting point, a basement wood stove, but could only watch once their water supply was exhausted as the flames consumed the one-story structure, Kuester said.

"That's the story of our area," Kuester said Wednesday. "We have a lot of trouble getting water when we are fighting fires, and we just couldn't catch up with this one."

His department, which covers Carroll, Lakeville Springfield and Webster Plantation, has lacked a tanker truck since firefighter Peter Beebe-Lawson accidentally crashed the department's truck on May 7, 2007, as he drove the tanker from Springfield fire station along Route 169 toward a fire scene on Mud Pond Road in Prentiss.

Kuester knew immediately that he would need a tanker truck on Wednesday. He radioed for mutual aid from the Lee and Mattawamkeag fire departments, which included their tankers, but they could not arrive in time to save the cabin. He said firefighters had to wait at least 15 minutes for water relayed by tanker and pumper truck from Duck Lake, about a half-mile away.

Kuester doubted that the presence of a tanker truck from the outset would have helped much.

"When we arrived, smoke was coming out of the eaves," Kuester said. "It [the fire] was up in the walls pretty good. These cabins go quick. They have a lot of boxed-in areas that you can't get to."

Firefighters left the scene at about 4 p.m. after repeatedly dousing hot spots with eight or nine tankers worth of water, Kuester said. He expected that firefighters would have to return to the scene overnight Wednesday, to fight flare-ups.

Homeowner Gil Whitney seemed stunned by the fire. The cabin, which is insured, was his home for 15 years. A retired truck driver, the 67-year-old Whitney and his wife, Kathy, built the home working mostly on weekends over three or four years, he said.

"It wasn't from one of those kits," Whitney said.

For Whitney, the fire began as he worked in his garage and heard one of his dogs barking. He opened the door to the main portion of the house and saw smoke. His telephone was dead when he tried it, so, after gathering the dogs in his vehicle, he went to a neighbor and tenant Carol Pauley's house, and she called 911. Pauley rents from the Whitneys.

"It's devastating," Pauley said of the fire.

She described the Whitneys as solid, resourceful and very generous people who adopted their grandson, 16-year-old Thomas Millett-Whitney, to help their son.

"She's like a second mother to me," said Melissa Perley, a Duck Lake Road resident, of Kathy Whitney. "When I came up here 11 years ago, she was the one who I could always turn to. If I need somebody, she's always been the person I could turn to."

Pauley and Perley said they hoped to work together to raise funds for the Whitneys. Anyone wishing to make contributions or help with the fundraising can contact Perley at 738-2093.

Clothing, furniture, food and household appliances are among items the Whitneys need.

"They have lost everything in this," Perley said, "except what they are wearing."

Springfield firefighters and the towns they serve will not go for much longer without a tanker truck, Kuester said. Thanks to a Homeland Security grant, a brand-new tanker will arrive at around Christmas time.

Copyright 2009 Bangor Daily News

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