‘History burning’ Fire consumes Cowan Mill

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The Cowan Mill burning, taken around 4 p.m.

Photo taken of the Cowan Mill around 4 p.m.

LEWISTON — Chaos
spread across the city Wednesday afternoon as the Cowan Mill on the shore of the Androscoggin River went up in flames. Buildings around it were showered with falling cinders.

Hours later, firefighters were still battling flames at the demolished mill. Local, state and federal investigators were searching for suspects, but no arrests were expected Wednesday night.

At 4 p.m., flames began shooting from the upper floors of the mill next to Longley
Bridge. Within 15 minutes, most of the roof had collapsed and what sounded like
thunder roared as walls and floors came tumbling down.

Thousands of people
stood on the sides of Main Street watching the intense fire grow bigger,
unaware that another building had caught fire behind them.

That happened at
about 4:20 p.m. when embers from the burning Cowan Mill floated down onto the
roof of Bates Mill No. 5, setting the saw-tooth-roofed building across the street on fire.

Auburn firefighters
rushed to that scene to snuff out the flames before they could engulf Mill
No. 5. Meanwhile, there were reports that fires were starting at the building
housing Espo’s Restaurant, close to the burning Cowan Mill.

“Our concern right
now is for other roofs and other buildings,” said Lewiston police Chief Michael
Bussiere, who was trying to help control a crowd of several thousand that
clogged the downtown. “We’ve got major issues with traffic
control.”

Police were going
onto rooftops all over the downtown to look for fallen embers in hopes of
preventing further fires from starting. Bussiere said he called in his morning
watch to increase police manpower in the city.

Meanwhile, near
Cowan Mill, witnesses stood incredulous at how ferocious the fire there was
burning and how quickly it had started.

“I’ve never seen
anything like it in all my life,” said Kathy Cyr, who works at a nearby bank.

A moment after she
said it, there was a rolling explosion from across the
street.

“Oh, wow,” Cyr said.
“There goes the roof.”

By late Wednesday night, police were searching for at least three people to question them about the blaze. No arrests had been made by 10 p.m.

Around that time, a team of investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had arrived in Lewiston to join police and the Fire Marshal’s Office in the investigation.

“With a big fire like this, it’s not uncommon to have those two agencies come into the investigation,” Chief Bussiere said. “The more investigators we have, the better.”

Firefighters remained at the scene of the blaze deep into the night, firing jets of water into what had been reduced to a shell of partial brick walls.

Lewiston fire investigators and officials from the State Fire Marshal’s Office were waiting to enter the burned ruins so they could search for clues to the origin of the blaze.

The first on the
scene said it did not appear the fire started small. There were no witnesses who
reported smoke before they saw flames. It seemed to happen all at
once.

“That was no
smoldering situation,” said Betty Lebel of Sabattus. She was one of dozens who
called 911 after spotting the inferno while driving past.

“Smoke and flames
were coming out of the second level,” Lebel said. “To see it burning that
intensely with no firetrucks around … It was terrible.”

Firefighters were
there moments later. They surrounded the building and doused it with jets
of water, but it was clear the mostly abandoned building was going to be
destroyed. The flames roaring through the gutted building grew larger even as
the firefighting effort intensified.

“When it flares up,
you can feel the heat,” said Randall Smith, who was standing at least 200 yards
away in a Main Street parking lot.

Lewiston fire
Inspector Paul Ouellette interviewed at least two people within minutes of the
first report of fire. A handful of police detectives were questioning others and
videotaping the crowd for possible use later in their
investigation.

At about 4:15 p.m.,
police sent out an alert to officers here and in other cities, advising them of
the two teenagers being sought in connection with the blaze.

The Cowan Mill
building recently fell into the hands of local businessman Martin
Finley.

“It’s one of our
greatest landmarks,” said Rachel Desgrosseilliers, who works at a nearby museum.
“It was one of the first ones here. We’re trying to save them, and now this. It’s
sad. That’s history burning.”

By 5 p.m., Cowan
Mill was still in flames, but the blaze on the roof of the massive Mill No. 5 had been
snuffed out.

“Great job,”
Bussiere said to Auburn fire Chief Wayne Werts. “This is one of the largest
structures in the state. If that had gone up. too, we’d have some serious
problems.”

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