Traffic on Elm Street passes Elm Towers on Monday in Waterville. One person died and three were injured in a fire at the building earlier in the day. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — The independent senior living complex that caught fire Monday, resulting in the death of a 65-year-old man and displacing 48 people, did not have a sprinkler system because the safety measure wasn’t required when the building was constructed in 1971.

Ronald Kennerson died in the fire, according to Lt. Thomas Pickering with Maine State Police.

“I can confirm that FMO (Office of State Fire Marshal) is still investigating to determine the cause of the fire, but there is no evidence or indication of foul play,” Pickering said in a statement Tuesday evening. “The building did not have a sprinkler system.”

He said there was no further comment.

Diane Townsend, executive director of the Waterville House Authority, which owns and manages the seven-story, 50-unit building on Elm Street, said earlier Tuesday that a sprinkler system was not required when the building was constructed 52 years ago.

Townsend said each unit has a metal, well-sealed fire door to help prevent fire spread.


“The other thing is, the building was built as a whole block of cement rooms stacked on top of each other,” Townsend said Tuesday. “The whole thing is essentially cement. That’s the other reason we fared as well as we did.” She was referring to the fire’s not spreading more than it did.

Built with federal Housing and Urban Development money and dedicated in 1972, the building remained unoccupied on Tuesday, as there was smoke and water damage throughout the structure, Townsend said. The local fire and code enforcement departments will determine when people can move back in, and a company called ServiceMaster is assessing what needs to be done to make it habitable, including whether the units can be dried out, how much cleaning is needed and whether Sheetrock needs to be removed, according to Townsend. She said the building is insured.

Kennerson lived on the fourth floor. The building has eight units on each floor, from floors two through seven, and two handicapped accessible units on the first floor, where there is also a community room, according to Townsend.

Firefighters gather Monday during the aftermath of a deadly fire at Elm Towers on Elm Street near downtown Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

The fire marshal’s office worked with Waterville police on the fire investigation. Waterville fire Chief Shawn Esler said Tuesday that his department is not taking part in that investigation and he had not yet received a report from the fire marshal’s office.

Firefighting foam that was used to battle the fire seeped into the public water system, leading the Kennebec Water District to issue an advisory Monday warning people not to consume public water. The advisory was lifted Tuesday after testing showed the water system was free from contamination. A backflow prevention device was placed in a wrong location when the building was constructed and that allowed the foam to spread into the water system.

“What we have in place is what we’ve been told to have in place,” Townsend said. “We haven’t been approached about changing anything.”


A person equipped with a breathing device enters the Elm Towers apartment complex Monday at 60 Elm St. in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Esler said the fire department expects a fire suppression system to perform as such, and firefighters expect that it is separated from the public water supply. Not knowing the suppression system wasn’t separated from the water supply, crews put about a gallon of foam into the system to help suppress the fire, he said.

He reiterated a statement by Roger Crouse, general manager of the Kennebec Water District, that the water contamination was not the fault of the fire department. Esler said if the department had done something wrong, he would have been the first person to say so. He said the department feels badly about the situation.

“There is some perception out there that we made a mistake or we caused this, and that’s simply not true,” Esler said. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance that occurred.”

Smoke damage can be seen Monday outside a fourth-floor window at Elm Towers apartments at 60 Elm St. in Waterville. One person was killed in the fire and three were injured. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

He said the department views the water situation as a serious event and “we will work hand in hand with the water district to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

About 35 firefighters responded to the scene from area towns, but initially, not enough firefighters were present to be able to rescue everyone in the building, according to Esler. “I’m not really grandstanding for staffing, but I think a daytime emergency certainly played a factor here,” he said.

The majority of those who are members on Waterville’s call force work other jobs during the day in other communities and can’t get to the scene, he said, adding that he thinks that’s a factor for all fire departments that rely on call firefighters and volunteers.


Townsend said some building tenants are staying with family, and Best Western was able to get all the others into one hotel in Augusta, which was critical to making sure they get the help they need. They will be housed there for at least five nights, she said.

Townsend said Waterville Public Schools provided a bus to take the tenants to Augusta and Delta’s wheelchair transport drove a couple of tenants who needed it.

“I can’t say enough about everybody who has been involved,” she said, citing fire and police officials, Delta, Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, Best Western and her own staff, which has “really stepped up. I’m really proud of them.”

She said churches have been providing clothing for displaced tenants and other people are providing personal necessities.

Townsend said people have been asking if the building insurance covers the contents of tenants’ apartments and she wanted to emphasize that it does not. Tenants may buy renters insurance for a small sum and officials tell them that when they move in, she said. She said the cost for such insurance is minimal — one tenant with the insurance said the cost is about $6 a month.

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