HOULTON — Only time and luck prevented a tragedy Friday afternoon when the John A. Millar Arena at Community Park collapsed under the weight of snow and ice on the roof. No one was in the building at the time.
The building collapsed at 2 p.m. It was scheduled to open at 5 p.m. for public skating. It could have opened earlier, however, had Recreation Department staff been aware that schools in SAD 29 were released from school early Friday because of a teacher workshop.
“There was this huge cloud of dust in the air,” said Charles Upton, the town’s community development director, describing what he saw moments after the collapse.
Upton and two other town employees were working nearby preparing for the planned Moose Stompers Weekend festival when the roof first let go.
He did not see the collapse, but he said some teen-agers who were nearby thought the arena was on fire because the dust looked like smoke.
Built in 1974, the 110-by-225-foot building was named for John A. Millar, a local hockey enthusiast. Millar, in his 70s, visited the site Friday but was too shaken to talk about the collapse.
“I’m just glad nobody was hurt,” he said as he surveyed the wreckage with tears in his eyes.
“We would have been pulling bodies out,” said Houlton firefighter Gene Ross, as he looked at the twisted steel girders and bent green metal walls of the arena.
Ross responded to the collapse with the town’s aerial ladder truck from nearby Houlton High School, where he had been assisting school officials with checking the roof.
The front of the arena remained standing, but it was bowed out from the force of the collapsed roof pulling down on it. Bricks along either side of the main entrance were cracked and leaning inward.
The collapse brought down power lines leading into the building and severed several pipes feeding the sprinkler system. Water flowed out a side door into the parking lot until employees from the Houlton Water Co. could remove snow from over the valve to shut off the water.
Meanwhile, town officials increased efforts Friday to find people to shovel off the roofs of other town buildings by increasing the pay rate from $5.25 to $7.50 an hour.
Some people in the area have reported paying more than $12 an hour for people to clean snow and ice off of their roofs.
Classes at the Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook were canceled Friday so crews could get onto the roof to clean off snow. Crews were planning to return again today and were looking for more volunteers.
Superintendent of Schools Terry Comeau said he had checked with both the architects and the engineers who worked on the building to see if there was any danger of collapse. He said he was told there wasn’t yet, but he decided to have the roof cleared anyway.
“None of it is at the load [limit], but it’s at the point where it’s approaching those levels,” Comeau said. “It’s strictly precautionary.”
In Houlton, Gary Edwards, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said town personnel had been checking the roof of the arena regularly. A load sensor also had been installed that was intended to warn when the load level on the roof reached 75 percent of its rated capacity.
Even with that, he said the town still planned to get a crew together to clear off the roof.
According to the town’s property records, the arena is valued about $550,000. It is insured.
Even as the building continued to creak and groan Friday, Town Council Chairwoman Catherine Davis was optimistic about the future of the arena.
“We’re going rebuild it,” she said.