LEWISTON — Mana Abdi and her family already had fled the frightening scene when her phone buzzed, announcing the incoming text message.

It was from Lewiston High School track and field teammate Faith Shaw. “Is everything OK? I hear sirens and stuff.”

Abdi’s eyes roll with restrained laughter as she recalls punching the keypad. “Oh, no, the house is just burning.”

The immediate contact from Shaw and Taylor True, another teammate and close friend, assured Abdi that she wasn’t alone.

She already knew how true that was. The fire that destroyed four buildings on Pierce and Bartlett streets late Friday, May 3, burned two other Lewiston track athletes out of their homes, as well.

Juniors Abdi and Mohamed Mohamed and freshman Adela Kalilwa lost almost all their belongings in the blaze.

Clothes. Running attire. Books and backpacks that contained an entire scholastic year’s worth of notes. Gone, and in some cases irreplaceable.

It was the second of three fires in an eight-day span. Abdi, Kalilwa and Mohamed were among more than 200 city residents left homeless. Running and jumping for the Blue Devils were far from their primary concern while agencies scrambled to provide food, clothing and shelter for their families.

But the ruggedly individual yet tight-knit sport that resonates with each of them has become a refuge.

“I just like running,” Mohamed said. “I like endurance.”

They endure, they persist and they compete.

More than three weeks after the night that turned their lives upside down, they will spend Monday fully focused on stopwatches and measuring tapes. All three have qualified for the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship at McMann Field in Bath.

“I think we’ve always been close,” Lewiston coach T.J. Niles said. “We always try to look out for each other. On a track team you start with a lot of kids, and a lot of them disappear.”

‘Something in the air’

Niles had an eerie feeling when he left home at 11:30 p.m. that Friday for the short drive to his overnight job at New Beginnings, Inc.

“I smelled something in the air, so I knew there might be a fire, and I heard sirens,” Niles said. “I knew the area and I know I’ve got kids in the area, but no one texted me until I got out of work at 8 o’clock in the morning.”

Distance runner Mohamed Awil delivered the sobering news. First came word that Abdi and Mohamed lost everything. Thirty minutes later, Niles learned that Kalilwa’s family suffered the same fate.

Saturday was a busy morning at LHS. In addition to an early track practice, Abdi, Mohamed and other members of the junior class were scheduled to take their SATs.

Upon arriving at the school, Niles hurried to the gymnasium, which was being used as a temporary shelter for the fire victims. Expecting to find the two athletes and intending to console them, he was told that they had chosen to take the exam.

“I couldn’t believe that,” the coach said. “I wouldn’t have been at SATs in that situation.”

Mohamed, who joined Lewiston’s youth track program as an eighth-grade sprinter before gravitating to longer events, shrugged.

“I just wanted to take SATs,” he said. “I didn’t want to miss that. I felt like I needed to go even with everything that happened.”

Abdi also elected to take the college preparatory test on no sleep.

“You have to tough it out,” she said. “I was probably half-sleeping. I’m not going to lie. But you can’t give up. You have to keep on going. Things pass, I guess.”

Time heals, but reality also sets in.

School and practice became hit-and-miss for Kalilwa, whose family spent several days in shelter at Androscoggin Bank Colisee while making living arrangements.

“I missed the last two meets because I had to move,” Kalilwa said. “When the fire happened and all my stuff was gone at my house, I just couldn’t focus.”

Back on track

Having extended family in the city made the transition moderately easier for Mohamed and Abdi, but there were obvious roadblocks in getting them back up to speed in both school and sports.

While track might seem a less expensive alternative to stick-and-ball sports, the requirements are many. Sneakers, spikes, shorts and rain gear were among the casualties of the blaze, which miraculously resulted in no deaths or serious injuries.

“The Salvation Army and the Red Cross, they’ll help you with the basics and whatever, but the running stuff, that’s a luxury,” Niles said.

Niles and girlfriend Heather Green, also a former Lewiston coach, solicited help. The couple cleaned out its own closets and donated two bags of essentials.

The Elks Club gave a sizable donation from its disaster fund. Niles’ running club, PR Racing Team, made a heavy contribution.

Looking for silver linings? The coach laughed when he said he’d been hassling a couple of the runners about buying training shoes and discarding old, abused ones. Now they have them.

“One of the other assistant coaches donated a huge bag of running gear and gave it to Mo-Mo. I gave him this (windbreaker). It’s nice to see him wearing it,” Niles said. “Some people don’t like to take handouts. I’m glad everybody was willing to take the help we gave them.”


“Um, I think we kind of had to,” Abdi quipped.


Classroom challenges

There are hard days away from the track. Finals are coming up in two weeks, and the students feel unprepared.

“You lost all the papers and whatnot, so now you have to think about how you’re going to study,” Abdi said. “You wonder how you’re going to manage with that, and it gets frustrating.”

Niles, who also helped locate backpacks and basic school supplies for the students, said he has relaxed some of the usual team expectations.

“We knew they were going to be missing some practices. It’s frustrating at the end of the season to have anybody missing a practice, but you have to be understanding,” he said. “You don’t want it to affect their running, but you know you can’t really do anything about it because it’s out of your hands.”

The coach has no need to worry.

He has three survivors on his hands. And if they’re equipped to run, run they will.

“Back in Africa where I came from, they don’t have these sports for girls, only for boys and men,” Kalilwa said. “Personally I don’t like just staying home without doing anything. I always like to do track stuff to keep in shape.”

“I like track because I’ve always liked being independent, and track seemed to give me that,” Abdi said. “You can push yourself to the point where you’re satisfied or just to the point where you don’t care.”

About the cares of life, in other words. If only for a few, frenzied seconds.

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