Cause of Orono fire still undetermined

Posted June 10, 2009, at 9:08 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Three State Fire Marshal’s Office investigators rummaged through the burned-out remains of The Orono Apartments at 6 Bennoch Road on Wednesday searching for the cause of the blaze that ripped through the historic building Tuesday night.

The team of investigators determined the fire started in a first floor apartment in the 3-story, 18-unit apartment building, according to Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

“Investigators will be joined Thursday by a state electrical inspector as they attempt to pinpoint the cause,” he said in a press release.

Sgt. Tim York, the lead investigator for the Fire Marshal’s Office, said from the scene Wednesday morning that the building is heavily damaged and finding the cause was difficult “because of the extent of the damage.”

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The building, which was built in the early 1830s to house a tavern and hotel, has been used as an apartment house since the 1960s. A 21-item statement of deficiencies for the building, which has had a number of additions added on over the years, was issued in 2004 and included electrical and other fire code problems.

Last year, a woman fell through a roof over the walkway on the Main Street side of the building.

When asked whether there were any current violations on the building, the administrative assistant at the Orono Code Enforcement office on Wednesday said that the only documents on file were from 2008 and 2004.

The damaged roof was removed in September 2008 and each of the 21 code violations listed in the 2004 inspection were to be fixed by owners Robert Dudley Jr. and Jennifer Whitney-Dudley by the end of 2005, the town’s paperwork states.

“There is a history with not just the town, but with our office as well,” York said.

Jennifer Whitney-Dudley said Wednesday night, however, that the building she and her husband have owned since 2002 had no current code violations.

“Everything was up to code,” she said. “We had a very safe building.”

The building was insured, and Whitney-Dudley said it would be up to the insurance company and structural engineers to determine if it would be rebuilt or razed.

“The most important thing to us is that everybody was safe and that all the pets got out,” she said. “We can replace a building, but not our tenants.”

She added that she and her husband are very grateful for the outpouring of support they and their tenants have received.

People driving by on Tuesday noticed smoke and flames escaping the 180-year-old building, also known locally as the Katahdin Building, at around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Most of the 23 tenants, many of whom are University of Maine students, were not home at the time. One tenant who was inside the building was taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor for smoke inhalation, and two firefighters suffered minor injuries, York said.

Jordan Pratt, 21, a UMaine psychology student who will be a senior in the fall, lived in apartment one with three roommates. She was at work when one of her roommates called to let her know about the fire.

“All I had with me was my purse,” she said. “Most likely everything else is gone.”

She and other tenants were not allowed back into the building to look for any salvageable belongings on Wednesday because of the investigation and for safety reasons.

“No one was at home when it happened, so no one was able to get stuff out,” Pratt said. “There is no roof, but the walls were standing [on Wednesday]. My actual bedroom window is still intact, but our door and the window beside the door were busted open.”

As fire crews from Orono, Old Town, Veazie and Bangor fought the blaze, hundreds of spectators converged on the downtown location to watch them work and the building burn.

About three hours after the fire was reported, the crowd cheered when a firefighter emerged from the structure carrying a golden retriever that had initially been presumed dead.

Though wet, shivering and a little wild-eyed, the pet otherwise appeared to be in good condition considering his ordeal. Medical personnel noted some singed fur on his hindquarters but little other apparent damage.

The Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross responded to a call from the scene on Tuesday to help out with housing and other needs and on Wednesday put out an appeal for donations.

“The nearly depleted relief fund is paying for shelter, food, clothing, comfort kits and emotional support services to most of the fire victims,” a press release states.

The real loss is the historic building, said Terri Morrow, an Orono Historic Society member. The town planned to feature the building on its summer walking tour, she said.

“It was built in the early 1830s by [Capt.] Francis Wyman as a tavern and hotel,” she said, reading from a 1976 document.

Over the years, the building housed a men’s social club called the Katahdin Club, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a telephone exchange, doctor and lawyer offices and a bank, she said.

The historic building, which greets people as they enter the town’s center, was built at the top of Mill Street back when Orono was a mill town known as Lower Stillwater.

“It was kind of a focal point for the town,” Morrow said. “I peeked into the interior [on Wednesday] because I live nearby, and it’s gutted.”

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