Speed, Inexperience Blamed in Maine Firefighter's Death

SPRINGFIELD, Maine - Cole's Shingle Mill was burning, and volunteer firefighter Peter Beebe-Lawson really wanted to help his friend and the mill's owner Jim Cole, so he decided to fetch Springfield's tanker truck.

Beebe-Lawson's decision led to his death in an accident on May 7 as he drove the tanker from the fire station back along Route 169 toward the fire scene on Mud Pond Road in Prentiss, a state police investigation has determined.

"Nobody ordered him to get the truck," Trooper Jarod Stedman said Monday. "His wife and everybody else said that he knew the people whose place was on fire, and everybody agreed that he was trying to go above and beyond to give them a hand."

Stedman's nearly 50-page report does not say whether the tanker was actually needed at the fire. Fire Chief John Krapf did not return a telephone message seeking comment on Monday.

Among other factors, according to the report, were: excessive speed for the tanker on that road; Beebe-Lawson's lack of firefighter training; his inexperience as a truck driver; and legal modifications to the tanker that changed its center of gravity and caused its tank's contents to shift dramatically.

Beebe-Lawson, who was not wearing a seatbelt, died of chest injuries after he lost control of the tanker truck just beyond a sharp curve. The tanker first went off the right side of Route 169 and then veered into pine trees on the road's left side, landing on its passenger side at about 11:45 a.m. Beebe-Lawson was pronounced dead at the scene.

"It is my opinion that the cause of the crash was a combination of speed and driver inexperience," Stedman wrote.

Fire Department records show that Beebe-Lawson had only 37 1/2 hours of logged firefighter training, including 22 1/2 hours of truck driving and 7 1/2 hours driving the 3,500-gallon Freightliner tanker, when he got behind the wheel at the station, Stedman's 41-page report states.

"The documents do not indicate what portions of training time with [the truck] were actually emergency driving," Stedman wrote. "Since the training time with [the truck] was only 7.5 hours, I feel that Beebe-Lawson was fairly inexperienced with that truck, specifically as it pertains to the handling, stability and weight shift in corners."

The modifications made to the former heating oil tanker, including an elevated tank and holes punched in the baffles that keep the tank's contents from sloshing, commonly occur, Stedman said, but they made the truck less stable and more difficult to handle.

"Since the fire truck tank was normally kept at around three quarters full, this would cause the water to shift and move throughout the entire tank while in movement, especially in cornering as well as in starting and stopping," Stedman wrote.

The shifting water likely contributed to the accident as the vehicle was coming out of the sharp curve, helping to create "extreme and constantly changing weight shift on the vehicle since 48 percent of the entire weight of the vehicle" -- 22,830 pounds -- "was in the tank," Stedman wrote.

The truck was well maintained, and investigators found no major violations anywhere, said state police Sgt. Mark Brooks, Stedman's supervisor. Brooks complimented Springfield Fire Chief John Krapf and First Selectwoman Lorna Thompson for their cooperation with the investigation, which was handled by eight state police officers and Deputy Mike Knights of the Penobscot County Sheriff's Department.

During an interview with investigators in mid-May, Krapf outlined some changes to the volunteer fire department's procedures that he was making in response to the crash, Brooks and Stedman said. The state police referred further comment on those changes to Krapf and Thompson.

Thompson declined to comment Monday, saying she had not yet seen the report.

Beebe-Lawson's wife, Selby, said that the report did not change her opinion about her husband, a devoutly religious man who was buried May 10 with full honors with about 100 firefighters on hand. He was buried on family land off Route 169, no more than two miles from where he died.

"Nothing in that report changed anything for me. He still did what needed to be done," Selby Beebe-Lawson said Monday.

"I don't think he did it only because he knew Jim Cole. If he was at a fire, he would do what needed to be done -- not foolishly, he would not have done what he was physically incapable of doing," she added. "He is a hero."

Selby Beebe-Lawson continues to operate Mary's School which she and her husband founded for special-needs students at their home on Shep Road in Springfield. She hopes to build a big school compound on the land where he is buried, she said.

She continues to receive condolences about his death from around the country, and she stays in touch with the firefighters who worked with her husband, she said.

"They have been making sure that I can get the wood I need to heat the house," Selby Beebe-Lawson said. "We live very close to the fire house, and they are keeping a good eye on me."

Republished with permission from Bangor Daily News