AP NEWS

Deadly propane blast voted top story of 2019 in Maine

December 25, 2019 GMT
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FILE - This Sept. 16, 2019, file photo shows an aerial view of the devastation after an explosion at the Life Enrichment Advancing People (LEAP) building, in Farmington, Maine. The blast killed one firefighter and injured multiple other people. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP, File)
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FILE - This Sept. 16, 2019, file photo shows an aerial view of the devastation after an explosion at the Life Enrichment Advancing People (LEAP) building, in Farmington, Maine. The blast killed one firefighter and injured multiple other people. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP, File)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A roar awakened residents. The ground shook. The lights flickered. Then splintered wood, insulation and shredded paper rained down. In a matter of seconds, a two-story building was replaced by a crater in the ground.

The deadly propane explosion that killed a firefighter, injured many others and wrought devastation on a community in western Maine was voted the state’s top story of 2019 by The Associated Press and its member organizations.

The blast, which occurred after fire crews arrived to investigate the smell of gas, was so powerful it blew a vehicle across an intersection and damaged nearby homes, leaving many homeless.

One firefighter was killed; the fire chief and five other firefighters were injured. Also injured was the building’s maintenance manager, who was credited with saving lives by evacuating the building before the arrival of first responders.

The other top 10 stories in order:

2. Hundreds of Africans who fled their countries and traveled a perilous route through Central America to the United States arrived in Maine’s largest city, overwhelming shelters. Portland officials responded by creating a temporary shelter at the Portland Expo where more than 200 people stayed while seeking temporary housing.

3. Maine’s Democratic governor wasted little time in expanding Medicaid. Republican Gov. Paul LePage had stymied attempts to expand Medicaid to about 70,000 Mainers for years, even after state voters approved an expansion. Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order on her first day in office.

4. Maine lawmakers removed religious and philosophical exemptions for vaccinations, setting up a statewide vote. Mills signed the law that ended vaccine opt-outs by 2021 for students at public and private schools and universities, including nursery schools. State voters get the final say in a People’s Veto referendum in March.

5. The Public Utilities Commission gave its approval to a $1 billion proposal to bring Canadian hydropower across 145 miles (230 kilometers) of transmission lines to connect with the regional power grid in Maine. The project, to be funded by Massachusetts ratepayers, aims to meet that state’s clean energy goals, but supporters say it would benefit Maine. Critics are pressing for a statewide vote in November 2020.

6. An unprecedented run of success by Maine’s lobstermen appears to be coming to an end. Maine lobstermen have hauled in more than than 100 million pounds (45 million kilograms) in every year since 2011, but that’s expected to change this year. Fisherman had brought in fewer than 50 million pounds through the end of September. A pair of scientific studies suggests the decline won’t be a long-feared crash.

7. Marine scientists reported more deaths of endangered North Atlantic right whales, whose numbers have shrunk to little more than 400. The deaths led scientists to sound the alarm about a potentially catastrophic loss to the population. Maine officials, meanwhile, fear that a proposal to help the whales by reducing lobster trap lines could hurt the state’s signature seafood industry.

8. Maine lawmakers approved legalized assisted suicide. Maine’s measure allows doctors to prescribe a fatal dose of medication to terminally ill people. It passed by just one vote in the House and a slim margin in the Senate; Mills signed the bill into law despite having reservations. She said she hopes it’s used “sparingly.”

9. After moving in fits and starts, Maine’s path to legalized sales of marijuana for recreational use cleared a major hurdle with the state accepting applications for retail businesses. Maine voters chose to legalize marijuana with a 2016 vote. State officials have said retail marijuana could be available in stores during the spring of 2020.

10. The three women dubbed the “Freeport flag ladies” ended their weekly tradition of waving flags that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Several hundred people with flags of all sizes joined them on Sept. 11, 2019, as the scene played out for a final time. Elaine Greene, one of the flag ladies, said she remains in awe that a simple gesture grew into something big.