‘Suicide by fire’ shocks Kittery — (Seacoast Online)

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Seacoast Online

By Karen Dandurant, kdandurant@seacoastonline.com

August 14, 2007 6:00 AM

Locals recount man’s actions before, during act

A memorial of flowers, beer and a Pearl Jam album marks the spot where Nathan Gagner set himself on fire Sunday on Route 103 in Kittery, Maine, in front of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.Scott Yates/syates@seacoastonlin

KITTERY, Maine ­ A local man who died after setting himself on fire Sunday afternoon may have been considering suicide at least 24 hours earlier.

According to a local gas station owner, Nathan C. Gagner, 27, of 135 Whipple Road, had visited the station on Saturday to purchase a gas can and razor blades, then returned the following day to fill up the can with gas.

Police received a 911 call at 4:03 p.m. Sunday advising that a man in the vicinity of 75 Whipple Road had poured gasoline over his body and set himself on fire while sitting on the sidewalk.

Kittery Police and Fire departments responded, extinguishing the fire. An ambulance transported Gagner to Portsmouth Regional Hospital, where at 5:30 p.m. he was pronounced dead.

Police said, according to family and friends, he had been suffering from depression. Chief Ed Strong said Gagner grew up in Kittery and that he’d known the young man all his life.

“His parents are good friends of mine,” said Strong. “I talked with them, and Nathan had been depressed. He was having issues and was on medication at times. He recently had suffered a breakup of a relationship.”

Gagner is the son of Janet and Terry Gagner of Kittery. The Gagner family owns Weathervane Seafood Restaurants, with locations in Kittery and throughout the Northeast.

Ken Lewis, owner of the Exxon gas station, where Gagner filled the can with gasoline on Sunday, said he had been in the store the day before.

“He came in on Saturday to get a gas can and razor blades,” said Lewis. “He paid for them and then put them back on the counter and left them.”

One employee, Tyler Eidell, said he saw Gagner earlier Sunday, riding a bicycle.

“He seemed fine to me then,” said Eidell.

Both men said Gagner was local, a person they often saw. When he returned to the station on Sunday he purchased a second gas can from a different clerk and walked around the store looking at different items.

“When he came in on Sunday, he was acting a little strange,” said Lewis. “I told him if he was planning to fill the can, he could do that and then pay. Instead, he paid for the can with a credit card. He was walking around looking at charcoal and lighter fluid. He decided against that, I guess, and he went out and filled the can. I thought at first he was going to walk away without paying for the gas, but then he turned back, came inside and paid again with a charge card.”

Lewis said Gagner walked down the hill, carrying the can.

“When a customer ran in and said a guy set himself on fire, I knew it had to be him,” said Lewis.

Katie Bayer, of 66 Whipple Road, said Gagner was calm as the flames consumed him.

Bayer, 15, said she was looking out of her bedroom window late Sunday afternoon and watched from the beginning as the man walked to a spot on Whipple Road across from her house, poured gasoline over himself, and set himself ablaze.

Bayer said she didn’t see the gas can at first, when the man first stopped walking. She saw him pouring something over his head and thought it was water.

“I thought it was a homeless guy taking a bath,” she said.

The man looked like he was in his 20s, with long brown hair, the teen said.

“All of a sudden, he just burst into flames,” she said. “He didn’t scream. He sat there calmly with his arms crossed. It looked like he was meditating.”

She said she and her brother tried calling 911, but all the operators were busy. By that time, drivers had pulled over on the side of the road, and she said she thinks they were all calling, too.

While she was watching, neighbors from across the street came out with a fire extinguisher and then a hose, and put out the fire.

“I was shocked,” she said of the incident. “I couldn’t believe someone would do something like that. People do a lot of things for strange reasons, don’t they?”

An autopsy had been scheduled for Monday morning, said a spokesperson for the New Hampshire medical examiner’s office. She said the case falls under N.H. jurisdiction because Gagner was pronounced dead in New Hampshire. The Maine state fire marshal’s office was notified and responded to the scene.

Sgt. Ken Grimes of that office said the fire was out when Dan Young, senior investigator, arrived.

“We’re assisting with the collection and storage of the fire debris,” said Grimes. “Dan collected a gas can, a cigarette lighter and some ground samples. We’re holding the materials we collected at the scene in case they are needed later.”

Grimes said the fire marshal’s office has seen suicides by fire before, but that the act is usually done in private, in a home or a car.

“I never remember one happening in such an open public place,” said Grimes.

Police say Gagner committed “suicide by fire” and that their investigation is complete.

Editor Deborah McDermott contributed to this report.