LEWISTON — Dozens of people fled their homes early Wednesday night after a fast-moving fire erupted at an apartment house on Pierce Street.
One man was being treated for breathing problems while police and fire crews searched for other potential victims after the blaze swept through 80 Pierce St. and spread to nearby buildings.
Tony Chambers said he was at home at 78 Pierce St. when a woman who lives next door came pounding on his door.
"She pounded on the door and started yelling, 'Call the fire department. My couch is on fire,'" the 59-year-old said. "By the time I opened my door, the whole apartment was up in flames."
Chambers fled the building with a woman and their small dog. His uncle, 68-year-old Bob Robbins, also fled to safety, carrying a canister of oxygen that he requires at all times.
Moments after escaping his apartment, Robbins collapsed against the side of a truck. Lewiston police Sgt. Jim Theiss summoned a medic and Robbins was being treated for breathing problems later in the evening.
The woman who lives in the apartment that burned told police she was lighting a cigarette when her sofa caught fire, a witness said.
Police began clearing people out of the burning building, as well as tenements all around it. Fire quickly engulfed the apartment house and spread to nearby trees.
Witnesses said a pair of police officers used a ladder to help rescue two elderly women from a third-floor apartment. The officers were later identified as Cpl. Michael Dumond and Officer David Levesque.
The scene along Pierce Street between Pine and Walnut was chaos. People were running out of buildings shirtless, some carrying small animals. One man ripped the shirt off his back to cover a large snake wrapped around a friend's arm.
A street away, on Bartlett Street, Judy Gomez said a pair of police officers knocked on her door before she knew anything was on fire.
"They told us to get out of our apartment," Gomez said, "because the fire looked like it could jump from that building to ours."
Knots of people — hundreds of them — jammed the intersections on either side of the burning house. One older man stood weeping on the sidewalk.
"Where will I go?" he asked. "Where am I going to go now?"
The fire could be seen from miles away, thick gray smoke illuminated by the lights of Saints Peter and Paul Basilica.
Justin Foster said he saw the smoke and fire from his home on Bartlett Street. He came running to the scene to shoot video.
"Flames were probably 12 or 15 feet above the building when I got here," Foster said.
At 9 p.m., crews from Lewiston and other towns were still battling the blaze. Flames had spread to nearby buildings at 78 and 82 Pierce St., but the extent of damage to those tenements was not clear.
By 10:20 p.m., the fires on Pierce Street reportedly were out.
Firefighters also contended with reports that other buildings were on fire, sometimes blocks away, although that did not appear to be the case.
Lewiston fire Investigator Paul Ouellette was called to the scene and was expected to enter the burned building once the blaze was under control.
The fire created traffic problems across the downtown as police blocked off intersections along Pierce, Bartlett, Walnut and Horton streets. Those areas remained closed to traffic hours after the fire was reported.
The local chapter of the American Red Cross was called to help the people who were left homeless.
Shortly after 10 p.m., some Pierce Street residents who live near the fire scene were allowed to go back into their homes. Others would not be able to re-enter their homes at all. The number of people left homeless by the fire was not available.