LEWISTON — Firefighters worked for hours Tuesday to put out a fire that involved three buildings in the area of the city known as Little Canada.
The fire involved a 12-unit, four-story apartment building at 32-34 River St., a 1½-story, single-family structure next door at 46 River St. and a third building that also appeared to house apartments.
Police said no injuries were reported. One firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion and released.
By late Tuesday, no cause had been determined, Fire Investigator Paul Ouellette said. He said he did not know how many people had been displaced.
The fire broke out shortly before 11 a.m. By 2 p.m., firefighters were focused on the four-story building whose roof had collapsed. Flames continued to appear at the roofline and hidden hot spots under the debris continued to smoulder.
Fire Chief Paul LeClair said at 2 p.m. that fire investigators from his department and six investigators from the State Fire Marshal's Office were on scene and planned to complete investigations into the cause and area of origin of the fire once the buildings were safe. At that time, officials would determine whether any of the buildings would have to be demolished. The four-story building was heavily damaged, he said.
He said firefighters worked hard to keep the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings.
Crews likely would monitor the buildings overnight, he said.
At 2:30 p.m., radio traffic indicated firefighters were entering 32-34 River St. They checked all of the floors, going from apartment to apartment. They recovered valuables of the tenants and several pets that survived the ordeal.
By 3:30 p.m., crews began to clean up the scene, rolling up hoses and clearing debris from the streets and sidewalk. The fire was declared to be "out" just before 5:30 p.m.
LeClair said officials had gotten from that building's owners a list of all of the tenants. All but one couple had been accounted for.
"We don't think they were in the building," he said. But their whereabouts hadn't been determined.
Jason Shedlock, a spokesman for the United Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, said 10 case workers were on the scene to assess the needs of the tenants for shelter, clothing and food. A temporary shelter was set up at Lewiston High School for displaced tenants. All of the units were uninhabitable after the fire.
It appeared to have started outside the large building at 32-34 River St., possibly on a porch, according to unconfirmed reports. City records show the building was built in 1866.
The fire appeared to have melted the siding of a neighboring building on Oxford Street.
Portions of Cedar, River, Oxford and Lincoln streets were closed as firefighters battled the fire.
The neighborhood is filled with apartment buildings, some of which are close together.
John Gravel of Turner said his parents, Monique and Hector, lived on the first floor of 32-34 River St., a building his grandfather bought after immigrating to Lewiston from Canada. Gravel said two of his brothers also lived in the building. All escaped the fire. Kristen Vitale of 32 River St., the girlfriend of one of Gravel's brothers, called 911, he said.
As her home burned, Vitale sat in the grass with her baby, Macy, in her lap. She sobbed as she talked to family members on her cellphone.
She said she lived on the second floor, and was home when the fire broke out.
"I put the baby down for her nap," Vitale said through tears. "I stepped out on the back porch. When I did, I saw some smoke. I thought, 'This can't be.' I looked again. I went in the house. I went in and out for a minute. I called 911. I didn't know what to do.”
She said she pulled the baby out of her crib. "She cried. I just went. I left everything. I grabbed my wallet, my keys and my phone.”
She and her baby were safe, but Vitale said she had three cats in the burning building. She was thinking about them. “How do you not go back, you know? I wanted to leave (the baby) with someone and go back. They wouldn't let me.”
Vitale has another daughter, 14, who was at summer school. A neighbor called her daughter at school “before I could even tell her,” Vitale said. “She just called me. Everything we own is in there.”
As she talked, a neighbor, Doug Carlow, walked up to her and handed her some diapers. "The diapers may be the wrong size," he said. “It's the best I could do.”
Janet Foster, 55, who lives in the same building, said she and her daughter-in-law and grandchildren were out when the fire started. They were walking back to their home and saw smoke.
“My cat is in there,” Foster said, in tears. “I saw her in the window, but I couldn't get her.”
Gravel said his parents' building is insured. The apartment building has been in the family for generations, he said. At one time, his family owned more than a dozen buildings in the area, he said.
Gravel's aunt, Helen St. Pierre, said her son, Kevin, lived on the fourth floor, but was at work when the fire erupted. She said he owns musical equipment that likely was destroyed by the blaze.
John Johnson, a Red Cross emergency disaster services volunteer, was at the scene among displaced residents staring at the smoking buildings.
Johnson said he had seen plenty of fires. “This one is bad. This one is three buildings close together.”
Jessica Ritchie, holding her 4-year-old daughter, Madisyn, as the buildings burned, said she was getting ready for work when she noticed the third and fourth floors of the building across the street on fire.
“I heard a 'pop, pop.' I thought it was fireworks," Ritchie said. "Then I started smelling smoke. I saw ashes, fire. It was going. I grabbed my daughter and ran downstairs. I'm freaking out. I didn't know what to do. I'm scared it's going to hit my building.
Little Madisyn said the fire was orange. "I don't like it. It burns.”