Jim Barnett of Rumford Falls Real Estate hired a crew Wednesday to cleanup the site of Sunday night’s fire that destroyed two of his apartment buildings on Hancock Street and one on Rumford Avenue. Bruce Farrin/Rumford Falls Times

RUMFORD — The fire that leveled three multistory apartment buildings late Sunday night is believed to have started on an exterior fire escape at 105 Hancock St., Fire Chief Chris Reed said Wednesday.

“It’s unprotected, not sheetrocked,” he said, “So it’s a common pathway for the fire to travel from floor to floor, quickly.”

Sgt. Ken Grimes of the Office of the State Fire Marshal is investigating Sunday’s fire, assisted by the Rumford Police Department Criminal Investigation Division.

“They’re not going to have answers right away,” Reed said.

The site at Hancock Street and Rumford Avenue is a pile of charred rubble.

When firefighters arrived Sunday night, the whole left side of the three-story building at 105 Hancock St. was burning from bottom to top, and flames shooting out the windows threatened the three-story building at 101 Hancock St., trapping those occupants as well, Reed said.

“To jump was the only way out,” he said. “It was either that or burn.”

A man and two women leaped from the third floor at 101 Hancock St., and a woman was rescued from the first floor at 105 Hancock St., Police Chief Tony Milligan said.

The 2½-story apartment building at 89 Rumford Ave., which was next to 101 Hancock St., was being used for storage.

“Again, that was close to 101. So it just went from one to another to another, relatively fast,” Reed said.

In all, six people were taken to hospitals, three of them in critical condition. Two have been transferred to Maine Medical Center, Reed said.

A total of 14 people were left homeless, according to officials. None of them have been identified.

Reed said he could not vouch that there were working smoke detectors in the buildings.

“I did not hear any sounding, but the fire was so consuming at the time that they could have melted away,” he said.

All three buildings were owned by Rumford Falls Real Estate, a company owned by Jim Barnett of Rumford, according to town officials. He also owns Ralph’s Store at 341 Cumberland Street.

Barnett said Wednesday that his buildings had liability insurance. It was unclear if they were insured for damage.

All three were built around the turn of the 20th century, Reed said, and he’s concerned about many other apartment buildings in town that also have unprotected stairwells that make them very dangerous for those who live in them, he said.

He said the best case scenario is stairs enclosed with sheetrock and fire doors in each apartment.

The town adopted the National Fire Protection Association 101 Life Safety Code. The global self-funded nonprofit organization, established in 1896, is devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards.

Reed said most of the apartment buildings in town are grandfathered so it would be up to owners to voluntarily make changes to conform to Life Safety Code.

“I encourage homeowners to do that, but there’s expense with that as well,” he said.

Donations for fire victims

Town officials are collecting donations for fire victims and will distribute them directly the families. Those needing help to connect with potential resources are asked to contact Tom Bourret at 207-369-5091 as soon as possible.

Aubuchon Hardware and Ralph’s Convenience Store have been receiving donations of gently used furniture, clothing and housewares for victims. Contact Aubuchon Hardware at 207-364-4813 or Ralph’s Convenience Store at 207-364-2062.

To make cash donations, contact Kevin Jamison at Aubuchon Hardware or Tom Bourret.

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