NORTHEAST HARBOR, Maine - Three buildings were destroyed, 23 people displaced and one injured in an early morning fire and subsequent explosion Tuesday on Main Street.
Firefighters converged on the village from other parts of Hancock County to help fight the blaze, which started shortly before 3 a.m. The fire appears to have started in the Colonel’ s Bakery restaurant, which was in a line of storefront buildings on the west side of the street.
The fire also destroyed Wingspread Gallery and the Joy Building, which were located on either side of the restaurant.
The explosion, which occurred around 3:45 a.m., was believed to have been caused by propane tanks inside the restaurant. A member of the local ambulance service was injured as a result of the explosion, officials said Tuesday, but they were not releasing his name and said they did not know his condition.
Mount Desert Police Chief James Willis said the man, who was outside the restaurant when the explosion occurred, had been taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor for treatment.
One resident who lives about a half-mile away, Margot Bass, said she awoke around 3 a.m. to a high-pitched whistling sound which she believed was caused by the fire. She said she was looking out her window when the explosion occurred, creating a huge ball of orange light in the early morning sky.
“I thought Northeast Harbor was being bombed because it was so large,” Bass said of the explosion.
Aaron Mitchell, who lives a few doors down from the fire scene, said noise and smoke from the fire woke him up before the explosion occurred.
“It was nuts. There was smoke everywhere,” Mitchell said. “I thought our house was going to burn down.”
Crowds of onlookers gathered Tuesday morning at either end of Main Street, which was cordoned off with yellow tape, and on Tracy Road behind the burning structures to watch as firefighters doused the buildings with water to keep the fire from spreading in either direction along the row of stores. Smoke billowed into the sky and bits of wood that had been burned into pieces of charcoal littered Neighborhood Road where the runoff from the fire hoses flowed in wide streams along the gutters and down into the storm drains.
According to witnesses, the explosion blew the lid off one of the propane tanks, sending it flying more than 100 yards. The lid, which the witnesses estimated measured 30 inches in diameter and weighed roughly 40 pounds, landed in the back of a pickup truck parked outside a contracting office on Neighborhood Road, they said.
Dustin Sposato of Pittsfield, who was spending the summer working at Colonel’ s Bakery, said he was sleeping above the restaurant when the morning cook ran upstairs at 3 a.m. and began pounding on doors, alerting people to the fire at the same time that the fire alarm started going off.
Sposato, 20, and about a dozen other restaurant employees, most of them Eastern European students, were living in rooms above the restaurant for the summer. He said they all got out of the building safely before the explosion occurred, but that everyone left most of their belongings behind. All but one of the 10 Eastern Europeans living above the restaurant lost their visas and passports in the fire, he said.
“It was confusing,” Sposato said of being woken up. “Everyone was half asleep. The hallway was smoky. People were grabbing laptops and suitcases.”
He said people who had been asleep in the building had regrouped outside when they first saw flames coming out of the first-floor wall on the building’ s south side. He said they realized how serious the situation was becoming as the flames spread.
“We were running up and down the street, yelling up at windows” to wake people up, he said.
Sposato’s roommate, Jenna McCarthy, 18, also of Pittsfield, said she lost most of her possessions except her laptop computer and her purse. She said she had left behind $600 in cash that she had earned waiting tables at the restaurant and had not yet deposited in the bank.
“It’ s just money,” she said. “There are worse things. What’ s important is that everyone made it out OK.”
Sposato, McCarthy and others displaced by the fire gathered at the Kimball Terrace Inn, where the Red Cross was helping them with logistics such as where they would spend the night and where they could get clothes and toiletries to replace what they lost in the blaze.
A group of foreign students who also were at the Kimball Terrace Inn on Tuesday morning declined requests for an interview.
Gretchen O’ Grady, Red Cross deputy director for emergency service, said donations of clothing and food were being accepted at the Neighborhood House and that an account for financial donations had been opened at The First bank.
She said only two of the 23 people displaced by the fire, which included people living in apartments in the Joy Building, likely would have to stay at the Kimball Terrace Inn on Tuesday night. Ocean Properties, which owns and operates several hotels in Bar Harbor, had offered jobs and housing space for 10 people, she said. Representatives with the lodging company came to the inn with vans around noon Tuesday to take the Eastern Europeans to buy new clothes in Ellsworth and then planned to take them to the company’s employee living quarters in Bar Harbor, she said.
O’ Grady said foreign students who had opened local bank accounts were expected to get copies of their destroyed work visas from the banks, which had made photocopies of the visas when the accounts were opened. She said that for those who didn’ t open local bank accounts, the Red Cross was getting help from a Bangor attorney and was contacting the visa sponsorship companies that brought them to the United States to see whether those companies might have copies of their official paperwork.
“It’s pretty scary to be outside your country, to not speak English, and to lose all your documents,” she said.
O’ Grady added that the Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross has been busy lately helping victims of other fires in eastern Maine. The agency needs financial donations to help make sure people affected by the fires get the help they need, she said.
“This is a huge disaster for the Pine Tree Chapter,” she said.
The fire is being investigated by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which had no comment Tuesday beyond saying it was looking into the possible cause and likely would be back in Northeast Harbor today. Local officials said all the destroyed buildings are insured.
Firefighters appeared to have the fire extinguished by midafternoon Tuesday but were working to demolish the charred shells of the buildings without harming any adjacent structures. One backhoe had its bucket propped up against the Joy Building to help hold it up while other backhoes were being used to tear down the remnants of the restaurant and the gallery.
Rick Savage, a former selectman and a longtime resident, said Tuesday that he could recall only one other fire in Northeast Harbor that compared to Tuesday’ s blaze.
He said he was in college in March 1965 when he came home for a visit and a fire broke out on the corner of Main Street and Summit Road. A gas station, a movie theater, a sandwich shop and a grocery store that all stood where Bar Harbor Bank & Trust is now were destroyed in that blaze, he said.
Savage said the earlier fire started in the garage of the gas station. That blaze had a profound effect on the town, he recalled, because it destroyed some of the year-round businesses that were helping to sustain the community.
“That was a real setback,” Savage said. “It was a bigger fire.”
Other towns contributing personnel and equipment to fight the fire came from Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Tremont, Lamoine, Ellsworth, Bucksport, Hancock, Franklin, Cranberry Isles, Dedham and Orland, as well as Acadia National Park’ s firefighting crew.