ORONO, Maine — A nearly 180-year-old local landmark at the intersection of Main Street and Bennoch Road was destroyed Tuesday in a fire of unknown origin that displaced 23 tenants, many of them University of Maine students.
All of the tenants who were home at the time are believed to have escaped safely. Building owner Robert Dudley of Winterport said that though he had been unable to locate two of the renters, neither he nor fire officials believed they were inside the building when the fire broke out about 4:30 p.m.
Lt. Rob St. Louis of the Orono Fire Department said no firefighters were hurt while battling the blaze, which raged for more than two hours before crews from Orono, Old Town, Bangor and Veazie were able to get it under control. Some of the firefighters were expected to remain at the scene for several hours to deal with any flare-ups.
Known locally as the Katahdin Building, the circa-1830 brick structure over the years has housed a tavern, the town’s first public library, a bank and offices. In recent decades, the original brick portion and wood additions built later had been converted into 18 apartment units. It also was one of a handful of area apartment buildings in which dogs were allowed to live.
In a scene that brought cheers and tears from the hundreds of spectators who converged at the intersection, a firefighter emerged nearly two hours after the fire started carrying a golden retriever named Bingley who had initially been presumed dead.
Though wet, shivering and a little wild-eyed, Bingley otherwise appeared to be in good condition considering his ordeal. Medical personnel noted some singed fur on his hindquarters but little other apparent damage.
Bingley’s owner, recent UM graduate Jennifer Dunham, was overcome with emotion and declined comment Tuesday evening as she watched emergency rescue personnel dry her dog off with a towel and administer oxygen through one of the special masks for animal rescues recently donated to the Orono Fire Department.
Richard Bowie of the Down East Emergency Medical Institute, who was among dozens of rescue personnel at the scene, said the dog was found on the second floor of the original brick section of the building in a foot of water. The dog had squeezed himself into a small space to escape the fire.
“That dog saved his own life,” Bowie said Tuesday.
“I’m speechless,” UM student Patrick Scholz said shortly after the dog was carried over to a waiting ambulance.
St. Louis said three cats also were rescued. Details were not immediately available Tuesday night.
Though the walls were still standing, the building was essentially gutted and most of its several roofs were caved in.
Bobby Leavitt, an emergency response coordinator with the Pine Tree chapter of the American Red Cross, said that all but three of the tenants had found temporary housing with family and friends. He was in the process of arranging to reserve motel rooms for the three tenants who needed a place to stay, as well as food and clothing for those who needed it.
The Red Cross was not the only relief effort under way.
Long before the fire was extinguished, UM biology and psychology major Vanessa Nemec had collected a couple of hundred dollars from people in the crowd for the fire victims, several of whom work at Pat’s Pizza and Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant, where she said donations could be dropped off.
“I didn’t know what else I could do other than stand around here and watch the building burn,” she said.
St. Louis said it appeared that the fire began in the eaves of one of the wooden additions on the back side of the building, though it was not yet clear how it started.
He said the State Fire Marshal’s Office was called in to investigate and that Orono’s fire investigator and Police Department personnel also would be looking into the fire.
The blaze blocked traffic through the heart of downtown Orono during the height of the evening commute.
Among the first people to spot it was Chris Dorian, a 48-year-old Orono resident.
“I came down Main Street and saw smoke from the attic. I called 911 and they responded immediately,” he said at the scene.
Les Myers of Old Town, who also was at the scene, said he saw the smoke long before the fire.
“Why is there fog over the river?” he said of the haze that could be spotted from several of the roads leading to downtown Orono.
Though the building has housed apartments since the 1960s, in 1996 it became the focus of a local controversy when Rite Aid announced plans to raze it and two other nearby apartment buildings to create space for a new store to replace its cramped Mill Street location. Rite Aid later withdrew its proposal.
BDN writer Heather Steeves contributed to this report.