RUMFORD — A fire that destroyed an 11-unit apartment building early Tuesday morning could have turned deadly, if not for the quick thinking of firefighters and paramedics.
Jay Morrissette and Ryan Arsenault, paramedics with Med-Care Ambulance, were close enough to the blaze to see flames shooting from the building at 82 Maine Ave. shortly before midnight. Chaos greeted the paramedics when they arrived on scene minutes later.
"First thing we saw were a couple people laying on the ground, cops running up the front steps, dragging people out, people trying to get back in," Morrissette said.
At a typical fire, the paramedics would stand back and let firefighters do their job; not so with Tuesday's blaze. Because they were so close to the fire when the call came in, Morrissette and Arsenault arrived before fire crews.
"A woman grabbed me and said there were two kids on the third floor in the back, couldn't get out," Morrissette said, describing how he discovered a man and two toddlers trapped on a third-floor balcony. "So I took the cop's flashlight, went around the back, convinced them to stay on the porch, because the other options weren't very good."
A short time later, Mike Chartier of the Mexico Fire Department arrived and found "complete chaos." Within seconds, Chartier spotted the man and the two toddlers trapped on the balcony. When the ladder he was carrying failed to reach the balcony, Chartier worked with Arsenault to improvise a solution.
"I looked at him and I told him, 'We've got to do something,'" Chartier said.
Arsenault, who also works as a firefighter with the South Paris Fire Department, was dumbstruck by the power of the blaze.
"I've been to a lot of fires and this was, for me, the most intense fire I've ever been to," Arsenault said. "I've never done anything like that before."
Sizing up the situation, Arsenault and Chartier found a flat porch roof that would give them the extra few feet they needed to reach the man and the two children. Moving quickly, Chartier scaled a nearby tree, jumped to the burning building and hoisted the ladder up to the roof.
Arsenault quickly climbed up to the roof and steadied the ladder as Chartier made three trips up to the third-floor balcony. The men were joined on the roof by Allen Chartier, Mike Chartier's brother and fellow Mexico firefighter.
Within minutes, the man and the two children were safe on the ground — just in time to watch black, choking smoke engulf the balcony. The improvised rescue likely saved their lives, Mike Chartier said.
"I had to think real quick of what the hell we were going to do," he said. "We saw that little porch roof and that was the only way. If we would have had to go back to the truck to get a bigger ladder, I don't think they would have made it. I think he would have been dropping those kids from three stories up."
The quick rescue no doubt saved the man and the two children, Mexico Fire Chief Gary Wentzell said.
"By the time they got the ladder down, that third-floor porch they had been on was just completely black smoke," Wentzell said. "You couldn't even see it. So another three to four minutes, who knows what would have happened?"
For Arsenault, the rescue was all about quick thinking and good timing.
"I guess it sounds cliche, but we were at the right place at the right time, really," Arsenault said.
The names of the rescued victims were not released.