Five years ago: 'History burning' as fire consumed Cowan Mill

Has it been five years already?

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Sun Journal file photo

The Sun Journal front page from July 16, 2009.

People who remember the burning of the Cowan Mill – and that seems to include anybody who was in the area at the time – marvel over how much time has passed.

But mostly they remember the drama of that torrid afternoon when it seemed that all of the Twin Cities was burning down.

"I can still remember how hot it was standing over by the Bates complex," recalled Mike Brown, "and the panic that happened when the roofs of other buildings started going up from the hot embers. I really thought downtown was done for."

Brown was one of many people to share their recollections on the Sun Journal Facebook page Wednesday afternoon.

"Seems like yesterday," wrote Kristie Perkins, formerly of Auburn and now living in Oxford.

One man complained because the destruction of the vacant mill utterly ruined his fishing spot along the Androscoggin River. A few others tried to recall whether the fire was intentionally set.

It was. Three months after the blaze, police charged a 13-year-old boy with setting the fire, although ultimately, there wasn't enough physical evidence left to prosecute the case. Two years later, the Lewiston City Council gave its OK for local developer George Schott to take over the property, creating a brief buzz as locals speculated on what might be built there. That speculation continues.

Here is the story that ran in the Sun Journal the day after the fire, July 16, 2009. To see the dramatic photos from that day, as well as more photos and information recently received from readers, go to http://www.sunjournal.com/news/cowanmilll/2014

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."

mlaflamme@sunjournal.com

LEWISTON – 

Justin Pelletier/Sun Journal

Justin Pelletier/Sun Journal

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

Cowan Mill Fire
Justin Pelletier

Justin Pelletier/Sun Journal Flames shoot from the windows at the Cowan Mill at Island Point in downtown Lewiston, Maine on Wednesday. The fire had fullyt engulfed the building by the time fire crews got to the scene around 4 p.m.

Daryn Slover

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Embers from the Cowan Mill fire ignite the roof of the Bates Mill No. 5, right, in Lewiston on Wednesday.

Daryn Slover

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Lewiston firefighters battle the Cowan Mill Fire on Wednesday.

Daryn Slover

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Only the skeleton of the Cowan Mill remains as firefighters get the fire under control on Wednesday.

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