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Nun Charged In Fire, Explosion That Injured Nine

March 11, 1985

DARTMOUTH, Mass. (AP) _ A nun from a cloistered, ascetic order underwent psychiatric examination Monday after being charged with setting five fires that damaged her convent and triggered an explosion that injured nine firefighters.

The other eight sisters who lived at the house were not injured in Sunday’s blaze but were forced to seek temporary lodging in a convent in nearby New Bedford.

″The diocese is trying to determine the extent of damage and when they can return,″ said the Rev. John Moore, communications chief for the Fall River Roman Catholic Diocese. ″I guess it’s not that badly damaged.″

The women, who belong to the Discalced Carmelite Order of Nuns, vow not to see or be seen by outsiders except for monthly visits from family. They live a life of contemplation and prayer, communicating with the outside world by handwritten notes or through a metal screen.

Sister Maria Gartner, 39, was arrested Sunday and arraigned later that day on a charge of burning a dwelling house. District Court Judge John A. Markey ordered her to undergo psychiatric observation at Taunton State Hospital.

Moore said Sister Gartner was emotionally distraught. ″She had a breakdown,″ he said. ″She really had a psychiatric crisis.″

″It’s not your everyday crime,″ said Patrolman Joseph Correia, who said he struggled briefly with the woman when arresting her.

The fires broke out about 8 a.m. in the secluded convent. Investigators said firefighters had extinguished the blazes quickly, but flames had damaged a pipe in a utility room, causing it to fill with natural gas. A crew re- entered the room and switched on a light, which caused the explosion.

The blast melted the helmets of firefighters, blew out windows and sent fire billowing through a door. But State Fire Marshal Brian P. McMahon said the thickness of the building’s masonry and concrete walls prevented major structural damage.

″It was like a ball of flame,″ said firefighter Mark Dumont. ″I saw the room getting ready to blow, so I turned around and got on the floor. I saw it start to go. I closed my eyes, and that was it.″

Firefighter Jeffrey Singleton was admitted to New England Medical Center with burned hands, and firefighter Harold Farias was in satisfactory condition at St. Luke’s Hospital with facial and hand burns.

Dumont and five other firefighters were treated at St. Luke’s for burns and released. A ninth firefighter was treated at the scene for minor burns.

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