July 16, 2020

Benton blaze ruled accidental

BENTON — The fire that ravaged a repair shop at a used car dealership four days ago started when a spark ignited fumes from spilled gasoline, an investigator said Thursday.

Fairfield fire Capt. James Lane said the accident reveals the dangers of working on vehicles in enclosed areas without ventilation.

The fire, which broke out late Monday afternoon, caused more than $100,000 damage to Dan’s Used Cars and Parts. Several cars and trucks were destroyed along with the two-story building.

The fire raged for nearly two hours, fueled by gasoline, oil and other automotive fluids. Thirty firefighters from Fairfield, Waterville and Winslow responded.

One employee was treated at a Waterville hospital for smoke inhalation.

“It was 100 percent an accident,” Lane said Thursday afternoon. Fairfield provides fire protection to Benton.

Based on interviews with three of the four employees who were inside the three-bay repair garage at the time, Lane gave the following explanation:

Shortly before 3 p.m., employee Bruce Salsbury Sr. was stripping down an old Chevrolet Blazer for parts in the third bay. Three employees repaired vehicles nearby.

A type of portable work light known as a drop light hung near the vehicle. A reciprocating saw, or Sawzall, had been plugged into a receptacle on the light’s cord.

The trouble started after Salsbury removed the Blazer’s gasoline tank. As he set the tank on a jack, Salsbury noticed that gas remained in the line and that some had spilled onto the floor and his clothes.

Lane suspects a spark from the power saw ignited fumes.

“We had an ignition from the cord, which in turn ignited him and his boots,” Lane said. “The [co-workers’] fast actions with fire extinguishers put him out.”

Salsbury was treated at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Waterville for minor injuries and was released later Monday evening. Efforts to reach him for comment this week were unsuccessful.

Lane identified Salsbury’s co-workers as Mike Mitchell, Dick Shibles and Leroy Tilson.

Thinking they had doused the fire, they opened the bay door to ventilate the smoke. That rush of fresh air fueled flames that had smoldered between the first and second floors.

The flames quickly burned through the insulation and raced up to the building’s peak. Fed by flammable fluids, fire quickly engulfed the garage.

Workers did their best to contain the fire until firefighters arrived. Lane believes their actions kept the fire from spreading to three other buildings on the site, including a home.

The scene Thursday reflected the fire’s fury. Charred timbers framed heaps of twisted metal, auto parts and 55-gallon drums.

In one garage bay, a blackened minivan remained on a lift, above a Ford Tempo crushed by debris. In the two other bays lay the remains of a pickup truck and the Chevy Blazer.

The burned-out corpses of several other vehicles, including an Oldsmobile Cutlass and a Pontiac 6000, rested nearby.

A blanket of fresh snow covered it all.

Inside the dealership’s office, Alan Witham, who runs the business with his father, Dan Witham, said he was glad the fire had been ruled accidental. An investigator from the State Fire Marshal’s Office also signed off on the cause, he said.

The elder Witham had left for Florida for the winter on Christmas Day. Learning of the fire, he initially planned to return to Maine, but since has decided to do so only if needed, his son said.

Alan Witham said he hopes insurance will cover a substantial part of the loss.

“It’s all looking good,” he said Thursday, a blend of fatigue and relief in his voice.

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