Robert Gorham of Buxton was a longtime volunteer with Buxton Fire-Rescue before he retired last fall. He died this week after a gas explosion and fire at a Montville home. Credit: Courtesy of Buxton Fire Rescue

MONTVILLE, Maine — Stuart “Nick” Nichols, 74, was always up for a game of cribbage and, with his long white beard, could have moonlighted as Santa Claus.

Rocco Taddeo had a spring in his step that belied his 88 years and he was counted as a good friend by many in Montville.

Robert Gorham, 78, was a beloved fixture of the York County town of Buxton, where he volunteered for nearly four decades with the fire and rescue department.  

The three men’s lives were connected: Nichols and Taddeo were neighbors and friends, Nichols and Gorham were cousins. The end of their lives was connected, too. They died after a devastating propane gas explosion and fire Wednesday afternoon at Nichols’ home at the end of a quiet dirt road in Montville.    

“It’s just so crazy that one minute you’re helping a neighbor and the next it’s the end,” Jodie Martin, the town clerk of Montville, said. “It’s such a tragedy to happen.”

Both Nichols and Taddeo had come into the town office within the last week, she said, adding that she always enjoyed her interactions with them.

“They were so polite and always full of good energy,” Martin said. “It’s a big loss for our community, for sure. They were really, really good men … both of them were willing to help people.”

That’s what neighbors and friends think might have brought both Taddeo and Gorham to Nichols’ home on Wednesday. Nichols recently had acquired a used propane-powered cooking stove that he installed in his kitchen, one of several propane appliances in his home.

Early results of the investigation have established that one of the appliances had a gas leak. When the explosion and fire happened at about 3:30 p.m., Taddeo had been trying to light the stove, Shannon Moss, the spokesperson for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said.

Taddeo died inside the home. Nichols and Gorham were thrown by the force of the explosion into some nearby trees. They died at Maine Medical Center in Portland, where they were being treated for injuries.

Chief Nathan Schools of Buxton Fire-Rescue was one of many who participated Thursday afternoon in a procession to escort Gorham’s body from the hospital to a funeral home. He said Gorham was special.

“He was an all-around great guy,” Schools said. “He always looked at it that you give back to the town that has given to you. He was a pay it forward type of man.”

Gorham, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard, went from a firefighter to a lieutenant during his volunteer career with the fire department. He also volunteered with fire departments near his camp in Aroostook County, Schools said.

“Someone said that if you looked up in the dictionary the definition of what selfless service was, Bob Gorham’s picture would be there,” the chief said.

He believes Gorham, a widower who is survived by sons Murray and Michael, came to Montville to lend a hand to Nichols.

“His cousin needed help with something, and Bob would drive 100 miles out of his way to help someone,” Schools said. “The world today needs more Bob Gorhams.”

The same was true of the other men who died, according to their friends and family.

“Nicky was a gentle bear of a man. He always gave big hugs. Always had a smile on his face,” Bill Nichols of Steuben said of his cousin, Stuart Nichols. “I never saw the man ugly at all. He had a great big Santa Claus beard and loved to play cribbage, loved his family, loved his kids and grandkids.”

Stuart Nichols, who loved to hunt and fish and who had served in the U.S. Coast Guard in the Vietnam era, moved to Montville from York County with his wife, Charlotte. Their cabin was meant to be their retirement place, Bill Nichols said, but Charlotte died in 2013 after a brief battle with cancer.

“She was the love of his life. He was sort of lost without her,” Bill Nichols said.

The couple had a son, Chadbourne Gene Nichols, of Hollis, and a daughter, Jill Gannett of Waterboro, as well as grandchildren.

Bill Nichols, who has served on the fire department of his own community for 51 years and been an emergency medical technical for 41 years, appreciates the hard work of all the first responders who helped with Wednesday’s emergency, including the firefighters, the emergency medical services personnel, the LifeFlight of Maine crews, the hospital staffers, the fire marshal’s office and the emergency dispatches.

“My heart goes out to them,” he said.

His cousin’s death cuts deeply.

“We were the last two of this generation in our fathers’ families. His father and my father are brothers,” he said. “We’re the last two.”

For Susan Jones of Montville, Taddeo was a blessing to her and her family over the last 40 years. Taddeo and his wife, Lucille, came from Franklin, Massachusetts, Jones said, but were already living off the Morrill Road when Jones and her husband arrived in 1975.

“They did everything,” Jones said. “They grew wonderful gardens, put away their own food, and hunted. But they weren’t back-to-the-landers the way you think about nowadays.”

She described Taddeo as an extraordinary person, who took care of his neighbors and was close to his extended family, many of whom also lived in the neighborhood.

“He was lively and a good neighbor. He was more energetic than any of us about 10 or 15 years younger than him could ever be,” she said. “I cannot emphasize how much he was the energy person around here. Even the day before, he delivered me five National Geographics he’d been meaning to bring over here. A few days ago, he brought me some moose stew.”

She was home when the fire started. She heard the explosions, saw the huge cloud of black smoke over Darci Lane and left her house in case the fire spread.

“It’s a very difficult one to process,” Jones said.

But she has a better way to remember Taddeo.

“I’m going to celebrate [him] by eating the last of his moose stew and reading National Geographics and thinking of him,” she said.