LEWISTON — U.S. Sen. Angus King on Friday walked past piles of rubble on Horton Street, charred buildings on Pierce and Bartlett, and watched a home come down at 80 Pine St.
As a backhoe clawed down walls and kicked up ashes, it offered glimpses of the former tenants' lives: A mattress. A kitchen sink. A child's red snowsuit.
"I learned a long time ago you really can't understand something until you see it yourself," King said. "You can read about it, hear about it, see pictures about it — but seeing them, particularly seeing that building coming down, you can sort of think about the people who lived in that building. Their whole lives are being pulled down by that big steam shovel. It's tough stuff."
King walked the sites of three recent downtown fires with city officials and said he'd be looking for ways to help, particularly with demolition.
By next week, all nine fire-damaged buildings will have been razed. The city has identified 50 to 60 more that need to go, at a cost of $2 million to $3 million, Assistant City Administrator Phil Nadeau said.
"The question is whether there will be opportunities to try to find some funding to help out with the demolition of those, so we don't have future instances of this kind," King said. "They don't let me loose with the federal checkbook. If there's something we can do to help, we certainly will."
The fires on April 29, May 3 and May 6 displaced about 200 people. When the Red Cross closed a shelter Tuesday, the city stepped in and put 39 people from seven families up in hotel rooms, Nadeau said. He expected everyone that's come forward for help to be in new housing by early next week.
"We're beyond crisis, but now you have the outfall of the crisis," Nadeau said.
People are settling in to their new places and volunteers are helping to outfit apartments with beds, couches and basics such as flatware.
From a city perspective, "our biggest need right now is on the demolition side," Nadeau said. "Long term, there's a lot of planning, a lot of rethinking about what it is we want to do with the downtown and that's going to take time."
King spent an hour downtown, asking questions about the ages of properties and the conditions they'd been in before they burned.
"You can still smell the smoke from this building," he said standing outside 80 Pine St. "I think the physical damage is terrible, the dislocation of the people is terrible but the shock to the community is the real hard part.
"My sense is this town will be just fine," he said. "They'll bounce back. They're strong people and used to dealing with difficult situations."