AUBURN — Janie Levesque broke down as she talked about her younger sister, Nicole "Nicky" Lagasse, who died as a result of an apartment fire early Sunday morning in Auburn.
"She was a daughter, a mother, a grandmother, a sister," Levesque said through tears. "She had one of the biggest hearts. If anybody needed anything, she was right there to give it to them. She always put others before herself."
Levesque, Lagasse's sons and the rest of their family gathered this morning at their parents' home to support the elderly couple, who were devastated by the news that their 51-year-old daughter died in the blaze at 32 Hampshire St.
Levesque said family members were informed of Lagasse's death by her oldest son, Ryan, but the tight-knit family waited until they could all be together for her parents.
"I'm really going to miss her," Levesque said. "We were all pretty close."
Levesque said family was the most important thing in her sister's life — especially her sons, 29-year-old Ryan and 24-year-old Billy, and her only grandson, Ethan. She said her sister was also very close to all of her nieces and nephews.
She said her favorite memory about her sister — who was an avid camper — was the time last summer when they camped out in the backyard of Levesque's Lewiston's home. She said Lagasse was disappointed because they didn't camp much last summer, so as a way to cheer her up Levesque she set up a big tent and made a rule that no one was allowed into the house except to use the bathroom.
Auburn police Chief Phil Crowell said Sunday afternoon that the cause of the 12:14 a.m. fire remains under investigation by the State Fire Marshal's Office and Auburn detectives. He said the fire is not considered suspicious.
The chief confirmed the origin of the blaze was in the kitchen, near the front door of Lagasse's second-floor apartment.
Crowell, who was at the scene during the fire, credited firefighters with bringing the blaze under control quickly before it spread within the building or to adjacent buildings. Residents of the apartment building were expected to be able to return to their homes Sunday afternoon.
"I saw smoke and I started yelling 'Fire! Fire!' and started getting my kids together and downstairs," said Scott Estes, who lives upstairs from Lagasse. "I had my four kids here, and I never have all four of my kids here together."
Estes lives in the one-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend, Bethany Maheux. The couple spent the day with his four children — three boys and a girl ranging in age from 5 to 12 — at Funtown in Saco. He and Maheux were just sitting down to relax after putting the children to bed when they heard the building's smoke detector start beeping. He looked out the front window of his apartment and saw smoke rising up from below and immediately jumped to action.
"I'm just so glad we didn't go right to bed," Maheux said. "I don't even want to think about it. There's just no way to describe it."
Maheux said fire crews arrived within minutes and police, who arrived just ahead of the Fire Department, were already evacuating residents from the six-unit building, as well as an adjacent apartment building. Estes said he kept yelling to the first police officer on scene that Lagasse was in her apartment, but that it wasn't until firefighters arrived that anyone went inside the apartment.
"There was a lot of smoke in the building. And the officers aren't going to go in somewhere where they might not be coming back out as well," Crowell said, pointing out how police officers do not have the same specialized fire-retardant gear worn by firefighters. "The officers used the best judgment they could with the equipment they had."
Crowell said police and fire crews arrived on scene within minutes of each other. Heavy smoke was seen coming out of Lagasse's second-floor apartment. Lagasse was found in her apartment and taken to Central Maine Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.
"She was the best woman in the world. I loved her," Lagasse's fiance, Michael Sands, said through tears Sunday morning as he stood looking up at the building. "I lost everything this morning — the love of my life, my dog, birds, everything we had in one fell swoop."
Sands, who lived with Lagasse, said the couple were hoping to marry early next year. The two lived together since 2011 shortly after they started dating.
"She was a wonderful woman. She loved life. She really did. She loved life," Sands said. "I felt like my life was just starting."
In addition to losing his fiancee less than one week before his birthday, the 51-year-old man also lost his longtime companion — a 6-year-old Labrador named "Rocky" that crews tried to rescue at the scene with oxygen. The dog was later euthanized at a local veterinary hospital as a result of its injuries.
Sands broke down in tears as he talked about losing Lagasse and his dog. He was not home at the time of the fire because he'd been arrested early Saturday morning at the apartment and charged with domestic violence following a fight with Lagasse. He said it had been the couple's first fight and that not being there hurt that much more because he was certain he'd have been able to get them all to safety had he been home.
"If I'd been in the apartment, it wouldn't have happened" Sands said. "I haven't gone up there yet. I don't dare to. I can't go back in."