By Liz Graves and Sam Shepherd
BAR HARBOR — A local family was hit by tragedy when a fire in their Russell Farm Road house Sunday morning spread so fast that two people were unable to escape the house and the other two were severely injured.
Erlene and Percy Harding, both in their 80s, lived in the house with their adult sons Leroy and Raymond. The fire burned the home to the foundation, creating a dark plume of smoke visible from hills miles away.
Erlene Harding and Leroy were both home at the time of the fire and were not able to escape. The state Medical Examiners’ Office announced Thursday that the two bodies recovered from the building had been positively identified and that Erlene and Leroy were killed in the fire.
“I, along with the entire MDI community, am devastated,” said Victor Stanley, pastor of the Somesville Union Meeting House, where the family are longtime members. “The Harding family represents everything God and faith ought to be about: loving, forgiving, caring, kindness, generosity, the salt of the earth. I’m not sure we can ever get over this. However, we will be bound together in grief and hope.
“Erlene was everyone’s favorite mother, and Leroy everyone’s favorite brother,” Stanley said.
Percy Harding called 911 to report the fire after escaping the house himself, shortly after 8 a.m. He told dispatchers that the house was on fire, that one of his sons had jumped from a second story window to escape, and that his wife and other son were still in the house.
When the Bar Harbor Fire Department arrived, they were unable to rescue the two occupants still in the residence. They treated the two injured men who had escaped and transported them to Mount Desert Island Hospital. From there, one was taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and the other was taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland.
Firefighters were on the scene from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. A team of four investigators from the Fire Marshal’s Office also were on the scene for most of the day, said Sgt. Scott Richardson of that office.
Bar Harbor Fire Chief Matt Bartlett said Monday that the lack of a reliable water supply in the rural setting challenged fire fighters with containment of the blaze. Crews used a hydrant on Norway Drive and also drew water from a nearby creek.
“We quickly dumped our three trucks, which is 4,000 gallons, on the fire,” he said. “That’s a big portion of firefighting out there, is establishing a water supply.”
Firefighters also were careful to make sure the wooded area around the house was not affected by the fire.
“We had some issues with some embers getting off into the woods and briefly caught a shed nearby, but we quickly got that out,” Bartlett said.
Eleven different agencies responded to the fire with personnel, equipment or both, including crews from Ellsworth, Hancock, Lamoine and Trenton.
Fatal fire calls can be stressful, Bartlett said.
“We don’t have those very often,” he said. “Everyone knows it’s part of the job, but it’s hard on people.”
He said he is keeping an eye on his team, and the department has counselors available to help emergency personnel debrief and work through trauma.
Members of the affected family asked for privacy to mourn their loved ones and deal with the aftermath of the fire. Friends and neighbors have set up the Harding Family Fund at Bar Harbor Bank & Trust to help with expenses.
Updated on April 27 at 5:47 p.m.