‘All our stuff is up there’ Burned out tenant fights to retrieve belongings from Birch Street fire

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LEWISTON — Anthony Ferris was burned out of his apartment last month when fire ripped through a 17-unit building at 101 Birch St.

On Monday, he wanted back in, one last time, before it will be demolished with his belongings inside.

Two excavators were already parked outside.

The building comes down Wednesday.

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Ferris escaped with his girlfriend, four Siamese cats and a cellphone on Sept. 23. By chance, their belongings were already packed up. They’d planned to move in two weeks to Florida, to open a Siamese cat sanctuary on five acres.

“We bought the land, wanted to get out of the winters,” Ferris said. “We’re both nearly 50 and we’re ready to try to enjoy life a little.”

Complicating matters: 101 Birch St. was sold four days before the fire. 

Last week, Ferris spotted someone on site who represented the new owners. When Ferris asked his name and who he worked for, Ferris said he was told, “‘It’s none of your business.’ He’s thinking we’re low-lifes, is what he’s thinking.”

Gil Arsenault, the city’s director of code enforcement and planning, said he believed some former tenants had already been allowed inside to retrieve what they could. The city had initially OK’d people walking everywhere but the fourth floor; Ferris and Kat LaCourse lived on the third.

Now, a month after the fire, the third floor is off limits, too.

“It’s so unsafe that the asbestos contractors aren’t going on the third floor,” Arsenault said. “It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get his stuff while the getting was good.”

Ferris said he tried. 

Three or four days after the fire, he asked about getting inside. “They kept telling us, ‘Insurance needs to clear it, insurance needs to clear it,'” Ferris said.

He assumed someone would reach out to him with the all-clear. Their fifth cat was found, alive. He and LaCourse went to stay with a friend in Lisbon. The landlord had his number. No one called until a friend gave a heads-up about likely looters.

“There were people in there last week crawling through like ants,” Ferris said. 

He could shimmy up the porch and make it inside; he doesn’t want to.

“I don’t want to get in trouble, I don’t want to go to jail for this,” Ferris said. “I could get my stuff but I’d be arrested getting it.”

The building sits on the corner of Bartlett and Birch streets. In city records, 101 Birch St. is also known as 190 Bartlett St. According to the Androscoggin County Registry of Deeds, Rockwell Investment Group sold 190 Bartlett St., 68 Birch St. and 195 Bartlett St. to ANS Holdings LLC on Sept. 19.

On Sept. 24, the day after the fire, the city told ANS Holdings the building had to come down. A demolition permit was approved Oct. 17.

Jim Hanley in Portland, listed as the building owner’s agent in city paperwork, said he had others working on the site and wasn’t familiar with particulars.

“To the extent that it’s safe we can work with the tenants to get their stuff,” he said. “I know we spent almost a whole day retrieving stuff on people’s behalf.”

Code Enforcement Liaison Officer Jeff Baril said fire victims should typically start talking with landlords right away.

“I think a big problem with that building, for the first four or five days the fire marshal’s office (was) looking at it as a crime scene,” Baril said.

Arsenault said it’s a rare situation that people can’t get in afterward.

Both men encouraged renters to keep detailed lists of their belongs and buy renter’s insurance. Of the 17 units in 101 Birch St., 11 were occupied at the time of the fire. Only one had renter’s insurance.

“I feel bad for him,” Baril said. “The night of the fire, he was really consumed with his cats. You go through something like that, you’re not thinking clearly. The next thing you know, the fire marshal’s office won’t let you in the building for a week, then the landlord’s got broken windows everywhere and the roof collapsing and he’s like, ‘I’m not going to let you in there.’ Nor do they have to.”

Ferris spent Monday trying to find someone to stay the demolition. He said he and LaCourse lost two TVs, two laptops, clothes, DVDs and medical records. 

“All our personal belongings were in that building — are still in that building,” he said. “All of our stuff is up there, they won’t let us touch it. I don’t want to leave because this is always going to be in the back of my mind.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com 

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