Traffic last week passes Elm Towers at 60 Elm St. in Waterville. A 65-year-old man died and three people were injured in a fire May 22 at the apartment building. Officials say the improper disposal of smoking material is believed to have caused the fire. Smoking is not allowed at the complex. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — The improper disposal of smoking material at an apartment complex where smoking is not allowed is believed to have caused a fire last week at Elm Towers that resulted in the death of a 65-year-old resident, officials said Wednesday.

Shannon Moss, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, confirmed in an email that the Office of State Fire Marshal had ruled the fire accidental and “believes it was caused by smoking material.”

“It did occur in the apartment of the deceased,” Moss wrote.

The man who died, Ronald Kennerson, lived on the fourth floor of the seven-story independent living complex at 60 Elm St. Forty-eight tenants were displaced by the fire May 22, and some are staying at an Augusta hotel, while others are staying with family, according to Diane Townsend, executive director of the Waterville House Authority, which owns and manages the 50-unit building.

Townsend said a sprinkler system was not required when the building was built 52 years ago. She confirmed smoking is not allowed there.

The fire marshal’s office worked with Waterville police on the investigation. Waterville fire Chief Shawn Esler said his department did not take part in the investigation.


“Literally, we spent six hours working on getting people’s belongings back, and making sure animals were taken care of, and working with the Waterville Housing Authority to ensure the tenants were taken care of,” Esler said Wednesday.

The Fire Department, however, determines when tenants can move back into the building, and has been working with the housing authority and advising changes be made to the structure, such as installing heat detectors in every unit, Townsend and Esler said Wednesday.

“I can tell you they have worked extremely well with the Fire Department in the last week, ensuring the safety of the residents,” Esler said.

Townsend said officials had hoped to allow some tenants from lower floors to move back into the building this week, but it will more likely be next week because additional time is needed for contractors to make changes. The company cleaning the building also needs more time before releasing the units to the housing authority, according to Townsend.

Firefighting foam that was used to battle the fire seeped into the public water system, leading the Kennebec Water District to issue an advisory the day the fire occurred to warn people not to consume public water. The advisory was lifted the next day after testing showed the water system was free of contamination. A backflow prevention device was placed in a wrong location when the building was built, which allowed the foam from last week’s fire to spread into the water system.

Elm Towers, which was built with federal Housing and Urban Development money and dedicated in 1972, was damaged throughout last week by smoke and water from the fire, Townsend said.

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.

She said while it has been a rough few days trying to get needed work done on the building, the community has been helpful.

“The outpouring of donations and people helping has been wonderful,” Townsend said. “We thank everyone in the community.”

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