LEWISTON — Fire investigators won’t ever be allowed inside the charred ruins of the Cowan Mill and must rely instead on video, photographs and interviews to determine the arson fire’s cause and area of origin, authorities said Thursday.

Fire Chief Paul Leclair said the burned out brick hulk was too unstable for anybody to go inside.
“It never will be safe, absolutely not,” he said.

Portions of walls of the four-story mill have already collapsed.

Fire officials spent part of Thursday morning in an aerial bucket stretched out over the former mill taking detailed photographs of the crime scene.

Afterward, Leclair said firefighters would focus on dousing the remaining debris trapped beneath the two upper floors, at the front and back of the mill, that continued to smoulder a day after the fire broke out.

Sgt. Joel Davis, a supervisor at the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said Thursday fire investigators had already inspected the area around the outside of the building. Late in the afternoon, the State Fire Marshal’s Office ruled the fire an arson and announced the Maine Office of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is offering a $5,000 reward for the successful arrest and prosecution of those responsible for setting the fire.

“We’ll collect whatever evidence we can and what documentation we can,” Acting-Police Chief Michael Bussiere said. Investigators had already interviewed several potential witnesses, he said. “Hundreds, if not thousands” of spectators looked on Wednesday as the blaze enveloped the vacant mill, he said.

Police are following up reports from various sources, including information that three youths were seen fleeing the area around the time the fire was reported, Bussiere said. “That was just one component of information and there’s a lot more to it than that,” he said.

No arrests or charges were expected Thursday, Bussiere said.

The historic Cowan Mill, owned by Paul Finley and Martin Finley Sr., of Sabattus, was placed on the market for sale 90 days ago, according to Lincoln Jeffers, assistant to the city administrator. The building was listed with John Danforth of Keller Williams Realty Mid Maine in Auburn, priced at $399,000, Danforth said.

Julie Adair Finley of South China, Martin Finley Sr.’s daughter, said her father has been out of the country for several months, visiting a friend in the Philippines. She expected him to return to Maine within the next several weeks.

Finley had stored a number of antiques in various collections in the mill, but had removed the equestrian gear and wooden car wheels to a site on Sabattus Mountain.

Julie Finley said her father’s stake in the property was lost in the fire, that between the lien recently placed against the property by Platz Associates, and the city’s move to condemn the structure and remove the debris, “there’s nothing left” for him financially. The building was not insured, and has not been insured since Martin Finley moved out of the building some years ago.

Martin Finley purchased the Cowan Mill about 12 years ago, and lived there for some time before moving out at the city’s insistence, Julie Finley said. He decided to list the property for sale because he was unhappy with the progress of talks with the hotel developer, and “just wanted out” of the property.
She and her son were in Lewiston Wednesday, watching the fire from behind the L.L. Bean parking lot. Since they knew the building so well, they were braced for explosions as the fire reached the mill’s boiler room where there may have been a small amount of heating oil in a tank.

Julie Finley wasn’t surprised to see the mill go up in flames so rapidly, knowing that “every floor in that mill was saturated with machine oil.” Martin Finley had cut out an elevator shaft in the mill, preparing for renovations.The hickory removed from several floors was so soaked with oil Julie Finley used it in her wood stove to spark fire. She said she knew the wood was highly combustible.

The crowd of spectators watching the last of the fire being doused Thursday was small, but steady through the day. Main Street and Longley Bridge were re-opened to traffic before dawn for the morning commute.

Fire and police have secured the scene because of the danger it poses to the public. “It’s a dangerous scene and we don’t want people down there,” Bussiere said.

“As long as it’s a potential crime scene, we’ll have to maintain that,” he said. That means police likely will continue patrolling the area around the clock for the foreseeable future, he said.

Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call Lewiston police at 784-6421, or the Fire Marshal’s arson hotline at 1-888-870-6162.

Staff writer Bonnie Washuk contributed to this report.

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