Rescuers Recount Propane Explosion in Campground
Stephanie Stanton sat with tears in her eyes as Assistant Rescue Department Chief Jason Cole recounted the incident where her godmother from Missouri was severely injured in a propane tank explosion that destroyed the family camper at the Salmon Falls River Resort near Lebanon, Maine, early Saturday (April 28).
Before a room full of volunteer rescue responders and paramedics, Stanton, 21, who has been volunteering her time with Lebanon Rescue Department for the last six years, thanked her colleagues for their hard work, Foster’s Daily Democrat reported.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her face. “They just wanted me to come down and say if it wasn’t for us, then they wouldn’t be here.”
Stanton said she was pleased to announce her godmother, Julie Giarla, had been “doing better” in the Maine Medical Center’s Intensive Care Unit, after suffering severe burns and injuries from being thrown from the camper in which she had been sleeping.
Giarla’s husband, Richard, was also inside the camper at the time of the explosion; he was released from Frisbie Memorial Hospital on Monday.
Cole, who responded to the emergency call, said a propane tank to the couple’s camper on the exterior of the vehicle became so heated it exploded at approximately 7:45 a.m. at the resort on Natural High Road.
When emergency responders arrived, they found the couple thrown and their clothing burned off entirely. A second propane tank on the lot also exploded approximately eight minutes after the initial incident, and reportedly knocked some responding officials to the ground.
“I’ve never quite seen something like that,” Cole said. “The first fire truck and the first ambulance had just arrived and I was actually getting out of our command truck and all of a sudden, the explosion shook the ground. I was stepping outside the vehicle and the truck I was in literally felt like it had come off the ground.”
Cole said due to the severity of the burns, including the fact that the woman’s facial skin had burned off, the department called LifeFlight, a regional helicopter service, which landed in a clearing at Skydive New England, 2 1/2 miles up the road.
Julie Giarla was then transported to Maine Medical.
Other RVs were damaged in the explosions, Cole said, but no other injuries were reported. He said 30 windows were reportedly broken, locked doors were blown off, and the explosion was felt as far as Lilac Mall in East Rochester, approximately 4 miles away.
Multiple 911 calls were received reporting buildings shaking.
Salmons Falls resort Manager Cheryl Slood said there were approximately 30 people on the site that morning, including some staff, preparing for the opening of their camping season on May 11 but there can be as many as 200 for the weekend of July Fourth.
Cole said his department was thankful few people were around.
He said the cause of the explosion, and how the propane tank became overheated, is still unknown. An investigation is pending by the Maine Fire Marshal’s Office but authorities did not return calls for comment.
Cole said he heard from the couple they had come up for the weekend to prepare their camper for the coming season but had been having issues with their heating system all night.
He said when the couple arrived the night before, the heat was not working and Richard Giarla had attempted to fix it. Slood said the couple’s camper was an older model and provided heating only with propane gas.
Cole said on Saturday morning, Richard again tried to fix the heat and went to the propane tank outside. When he entered the camper and sat back down, the tank exploded.
Slood added Salmons Falls provides each lot with electrical and water hookups for plumbing, but each guest is responsible for their own propane.
In an upstairs room at the Rescue Department station, Cole met with his colleagues where they routinely meet to discuss best practices. Many of the responders, comprised of a volunteer staff, seemed moved by the shocking event.
“For a rescue outfit, I think we do damn good down here,” chimed Larry Wood, an EMT-Basic volunteer. “We might be volunteer, but we have the training.”
“People know what they have to do without even thinking about it,” added Capt. Ryan Therrien.
Cole said he was proud of everyone’s focus and added their EMT Chaplain, Pastor Ron German of the Second Baptist Church, was available to those feeling emotionally drained by some of the more gruesome aspects of the rescue.
“I’m proud of your commitment to this town,” he said. “Everything went by the book.”
Stanton said she had often vacationed at the resort as a child with her family, and Slood said she knew of at least four other lots on the campground rented out by relatives of the Giarlas, who live in Missouri but have been traveling to Lebanon for the last 30 years.
Slood, who has been operating the resort with her husband Marty since 2008, said she was warmed by the camping community’s efforts. Neighbors worked throughout the weekend to help, she said, and even started a pile of salvaged collectibles thrown from the camper, such as coins and CDs.
“If anything, this has just pulled everybody a little closer because it makes you realize, you never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “You need to enjoy each day.”
A fund has been set up by the Sloods to raise money for the family.
Donations can be made by mailing checks to the camping resort at 44 Natural High Road, Lebanon, ME, 04027, or by dropping off cash. For more information, visit SalmonFallsRiverRVResort.com.