LEWISTON — Family and neighbors in the tightknit south Lewiston neighborhood nestled along the banks of the Androscoggin River struggled to come to terms with the death of one of their own Tuesday afternoon.

Parents gathered quietly with their children at a colorful makeshift memorial before the charred, boarded remains of 52 River St. in Little Canada.

Adorning the telephone pole in front of the gutted, three-story apartment building are stuffed animals, pictures and prayers honoring 9-year-old Taylor McQueeney. She died in an early-morning blaze Monday that started in the third-floor apartment where she was spending the night with relatives.

Some neighbors who brought their children to place stuffed animals at the memorial said they wanted justice for the girl they say didn’t need to die.

Continuing investigation

Investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office and Lewiston Police
Department on Tuesday continued their joint investigation into the
deadly fire that destroyed two tenement buildings and displaced dozens
of residents. The State Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that Taylor McQueeney died of  smoke inhalation. The office declined to release any further details about the autopsy report, citing the continuing investigation.

Sgt. Joel Davis, lead investigator and supervisor for the Southern Division Investigation Unit of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said investigators with his office were wrapping up final interviews with residents affected by the fire. Once complete, Davis said the case would likely be turned over to the District Attorney’s Office for possible charges against any or all of the three men in the apartment at the time the fire broke out.

According to reports, the apartment was being rented by Craig Austin, 39, who escaped with minor burns to his feet. Also staying in the apartment at the time of the fire were brothers Nathan Cote, 18, and Justin Cote, 25. McQueeney’s family told the Sun Journal on Monday that Justin Cote had tried to get the girl out of the burning apartment.

“There were three individuals in that apartment,” Davis said. “And one individual acted appropriately in reporting the fire and attempting to get the girl out.”

Davis said the cause of the fire had been ruled accidental, but his office wanted to make sure that the adults involved acted appropriately. Lewiston Police Lt. Mark Cornelio said the men potentially face charges — at a minimum — of failure to report a dangerous fire. He said authorities were still piecing together the case.

Demanding justice

“It’s a shame. It was something that could have been prevented,” said Susan Morawski, 30, of 116 Oxford St. “It’s an accident that could have been prevented. I’d be pressing charges. Somehow, somewhere, I’d be pressing charges.”

Morawski and another woman made their way to the memorial with Morawski’s 4-year-old son, Timothy Gray, to place stuffed animals. She said she was angry that McQueeney was staying in an apartment with no electricity where residents were using candles for light.

Another neighbor, Scott Lagasse, said the news of McQueeney’s death still hadn’t settled in the streets of Little Canada. He added that yesterday’s tragedy seemed like a bad dream to people. He and his 5-year-old daughter, Teliah, placed a small teddy bear with angel wings on the memorial. The girl looked up at her father and told him Taylor McQueeney was playing in heaven now.

Looking up at the building and pointing, the youngster told her father that they should not play with flames or lighters because, “Look what it did to that building.”

As neighbors made their way home after visiting the memorial, Taylor’s uncle, Paul Cote Jr., walked up River Street to stand before the telephone pole paying homage to the young niece he loved to take exploring. 

“Everybody would like to blame somebody right now, but when you have stories that are conflicting … ,” Cote said, trailing off as he walked over to the memorial. “There’s a lot of confusion right now. It’s hard to place blame when we don’t know what happened.”

Jonathan Pleau, left, and Noah Watts look at the memorial made for Taylor McQueeney on River Street in Lewiston on Tuesday evening. Pleau and Watts, both 10, live across the street from the building in which the 9-year-old girl died in a fire early Monday morning.

Recent fire deaths in Lewiston

  • Taylor Cote McQueeney, 9, 52 River St., Aug. 17, 2009, candle left burning
  • Anthony Lilly, 5, 214 Blake St., February 2006; child playing with matches
  • Robert Leger, 65, St. Croix Street, December 2004; cigarette lit near an oxygen tank caused small explosion and fire
  • Helen Caron, 84, Ash Street, October 2001; arson fire
  • Scott Morrill, 24, Brittany Morrill, 1, and Joshua Hotham, 3, Maple
    Street, April 1997; ash tray dumped into trash bag; the victims were
    trapped inside by blocked exits

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