LEWISTON — Three, three-story apartment buildings in the downtown area were destroyed in a fire late Monday afternoon that left 75 people homeless and caused minor injuries to some firefighters, officials said.
The fire started in a three-story building at 105 Blake St. just before 4:30 p.m. and spread to two neighboring three-story buildings at 172 Bates St. and 82 Pine St. Thick smoke filled the city block, engulfing buildings, including Saints Peter and Paul Basilica on Ash Street. Every building in the block was evacuated and hundreds of people lined nearby streets to watch the firefighting activity.
Jessica Ramsey-Nguyen said she was with her 5-day-old baby in their third-floor apartment at 105 Blake St. when she heard a loud bang, smelled smoke and went to the kitchen to see flames and smoke coming in the window.
"I grabbed my baby and left," she said. Her pet dog perished in the blaze, she said.
Within minutes, the fire jumped to the back of 172 Bates St., and onto nearby lawns. According to firefighters, the roof at 82 Pine St. caught fire just after 5 p.m., and smoke rolled out of the third floor minutes later, with the fire quickly spreading through the building.
Angela Gayton was asleep on the third floor of the Pine Street apartment house when her 3-week-old baby started crying and woke her up, she said.
Gayton walked to the back of the apartment to see flames on the eaves. When she turned to flee, she said, the windows "exploded."
Gayton grabbed her baby and fled.
Her mother, other family members and friends arrived quickly to support her and her newborn.
So did Nancy Juskewitch. "I gave them $20 for diapers," she said, and was offering them a place to stay. "They have no jacket, nothing," she said.
Firefighters did limited searches of the apartment houses, and at about 5:30 p.m., Lewiston Fire Investigator Paul Ouellette said a resident in one of the buildings was not accounted for, but that person may be in the crowd behind the barricades that surrounded the scene.
Police Chief Michael Bussiere said nearby buildings were evacuated.
Michael Marquis, who had just moved into a third-floor apartment on Blake Street, said he heard crackling and a "pow" and looked outside to see the fire nearby. His neighbors were able to get out with their pets, he said.
Kevin Barrett, who had been walking to the post office, said he saw a little fire in one of the apartment buildings and saw people rushing toward it and thought it was under control. By the time he came out of the post office, he said, the building was on fire.
"It went up like that," he said.
Roberta Greenlaw who lives on the second floor at Healey Terrace senior housing at 81 Ash St. said she first thought her building was ablaze.
"I thought it was our building at first when I looked out and saw the smoke," she said as she watched the activity while holding her little mixed-breed dog named Dude.
"I grabbed him, grabbed my purse and got out," she said. She also moved her car because it was too close to the burning buildings.
City firefighters were working late into the night to douse flames and hot spots, assisted by area departments, including Auburn, Lisbon, Oxford, Topsham, New Gloucester, Turner and Mechanic Falls.
An investigator from the state Fire Marshal's Office was at the scene Monday night.
Just before midnight, fire Chief Paul Leclair said the firefighting operations were under control.
"We're just wrapping up," he said, adding that other departments were being sent home and a crew will be left overnight to keep watch.
Sections of Blake and Bates streets will remain closed and investigators will be on scene at 8 a.m., he said
According to Leclair, there were a few minor injuries to firefighters, but they were quickly treated.
The apartment building at 105 Blake St. was valued at $191, 340, according to tax records, and is owned by Watkins Property Management. It had been condemned and was scheduled to be auctioned May 22, according to a neighbor.
The building at 172 Bates St. is owned by Caron Property Management and is assessed at $210,000. It had an "auction" sign hanging on the Bates Street side.
It was not immediately known who owned the Pine Street building.