Lewiston, April 23, 1997. 

The big apartment house at 56 Maple St. was fully ablaze, and on the streets around it, madness was underway. 

Men and women were running every which way, some holding terrified children in both arms. Many were sobbing, others were half dressed, a few just wandered in a daze as though they believed they must be dreaming. 

Screams seemed to come from all directions. Screams you could barely hear over the roar of fire. Some wailed with fear and anguish, others were calling out names as they stumbled through the disordered throngs in the street. 

“Jody? Oh, my God! Jody, where are you? Has anyone seen Jody?” 

Dark, acrid smoke rolled over the neighborhood, blotting out the sun and giving the world an apocalyptic feel. The smell of it, mingling with the diesel from the fire engines, was hot and foreboding. 

Mark LaFlamme

From across the street, you could feel the intense, smothering heat of the fire, as well. It had completely engulfed the upper floors of the tall tenement and thick black ash rained down on the horrified men, women and children in the smoke-choked world below. 

Sirens wailed, a deafening, anguished scream of its own in this small cramped corner of Lewiston. Firefighters seemed to be everywhere, unrolling hoses, setting up ladders, rushing straight into the hot, crackling hell to do battle. 

On the sidewalks, people had gathered. In desperation, they were attempting to make a fast inventory of loved ones and neighbors. 

“I haven’t seen Scottie and the kids!” one weeping woman declared. “Do you think they got out? Oh, God, tell me they got out!” 

I remember that moment as vividly as if it had happened last week, rather than nearly a quarter-century ago. I remember trying to console the distraught woman, assuring her that, surely, her friend had escaped with the children. Surely, they were somewhere nearby, frightened but unharmed. 

I believed it, too. I believed with the absolute confidence of the truly naive that when the flames were doused and the exhausted firefighters came stumbling out of the wreckage, they would assure us that everyone had escaped and all the kids were accounted for and doing fine. 

Of course they would. Toddlers could not die that way. Not here in Lewiston, just a block from the police station and two from the newspaper. 

Grim reality would catch up with me eventually, oh yes. But it took a while. All through that ghastly early evening, I continued to believe that all would be well in the end. 

“Everybody out safe?” I asked a fire captain as he breezed past me. 

He just shook his head and went off to continue the battle against the devastating flames. 

But still I fought against the idea. The kids and their dad probably had been whisked off to a neighbor’s apartment. Or perhaps they had been led to the back of one of the ambulances parked near the fire scene.

They would turn up, I was sure of it. I had covered plenty of fires by that point, and people always showed up, traumatized, sure, but alive and healthy. 

I do not think I truly accepted that the kids were gone, and their dad, too, until a fire official addressed the crowd out front and made it official. 

Trapped on the fourth floor of that apartment house at the corner of Maple and Knox streets, 24-year-old Scott Morrill, his 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old stepson had perished. 

They were dead. Gone. They had died in that vicious fire just as that poor, weeping woman on the sidewalk had feared. They died even as I so steadfastly had refused to believe such a thing could happen on that nice spring day. 

In coming days, fire investigators would find a whole lot of things wrong about the building that had burned. Blocked exits and stairways, for one thing. A dismal lack of fire safety equipment that might have made the difference between life and death on that terrible day. 

I spoke with Lewiston Fire Investigator Paul Ouellette recently about that fire. When the building at 56 Maple St. went up in flames, Ouellette was a rookie with the Auburn Fire Department. He, like several firefighters from departments in nearby communities, came to help battle that blaze. 

Today, Ouellette is Lewiston’s fire inspector, and over the past 20 plus years, he has investigated hundreds of fires, seven of them involving fatalities. 

But like me, he has never forgotten the horror that was visited upon Maple Street 24 years ago. He remembers every detail of what went wrong on that wretched day. 

Maybe you just never forget your first. What I remember best about that fire is how naively I went on refusing to believe that children could be dead. For sure, it was the very last time that I ever went to a fire scene all easy in my optimism that things would turn out just fine in the end. 

Fire, I would come to accept, is as cruel and as indiscriminate as any force on earth. It will take without compunction a child not yet old enough to walk on his own or an old woman too infirm to save herself. 

A few years after the fire on Maple Street, an 84-year-old woman died in a blaze on Ash Street, which investigators later declared had been set. 

A short time later, a 9-year-old girl perished in a fire caused by an unattended candle. Then it was a 5-year-old boy who had been playing with matches on Blake Street. 

Despite the truly amazing work that firefighters do, and despite all the widely available safety equipment and education, fire just keeps on coming for people. 

I bring it up mainly because here we are in April, and already it seems it is going to be a bad year for fires. 

Over the weekend, a 65-year-old man perished in flames at his Poland home just a week after a Rangeley woman died in a similar blaze. 

A 14-year-old boy died in a fire in Camden in February, and a family member was burned trying to save him. Within days of that, a 7-year-old girl was lost in a blaze in Lincoln.  

It is hard to believe now that I was ever so sanguine. For better or worse, the optimism I had all those years ago has been replaced by grim experience and sad resign. 

 

Fire at 56 Maple St. in Lewiston on April 23, 1997. Submitted photo


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