May 23, 2018
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Lewiston apartment fire victims return to find homes burglarized

Andrew Cullen | Sun Journal
Andrew Cullen | Sun Journal
Krystal Johnson plays with her nearly 2-year-old son, Josiah, in the kitchen of their apartment at 279 Pine St. in Lewiston on Wednesday night. Johnson and her three sons returned to their home Wednesday, eight days after an electrical fire forced them to leave. The unit is habitable again, but some work remains to be done, including placing ceiling tiles to cover the hole visible above Johnson's head.
By Andrew Cullen, Sun Journal

LEWISTON, Maine — Nearly a week after a fire rendered their apartment at 279 Pine St. temporarily uninhabitable, Krystal Johnson and her children were ready to move back in.

But first, she had some bad news for her children: Within a few days of the fire, someone had broken into the home and stolen many of the belongings left behind.

The Nov. 1 electrical fire forced firefighters to tear down walls to find the source and caused significant smoke damage. Johnson’s family and two other families retreated to hotel rooms provided for three days by the American Red Cross, and then by their landlord, Paul Soracco. The burglary and thefts were reported to police Saturday morning.

“Not only was it the people who lived there, it was the people who were doing construction to renovate the building,” who were victimized, Lewiston police Lt. Mark Cornelio said.

He said police have a list of 21 items that were stolen from two of the building’s three apartment units, including televisions, toys and power tools.

When Johnson heard about the thefts, she came back to the apartment to find it in shambles, with drawers spilled out onto the floor. Even the cover of her Bible had been torn off.

“Anything I had of value, except for the televisions, is gone,” She said. It was immediately apparent that her smaller electronics had been taken, but in the days after the burglary, she discovered that other items, including baby gates and infant soap, were missing, too.

“Some of the stuff they took was just unbelievable,” she said. “It’s just discouraging.”

Although Soracco had locked up the building, “the thief found a hole that was a result of the fire and was able to gain access that way,” Cornelio said.

All fire victims are vulnerable, said Red Cross Emergency Services Director Eric Lynes. Fire-damaged homes are often too unsafe for residents to enter, leaving them stranded without whatever belongings may have survived.

The Red Cross helped the 13 people — including nine children — displaced by the fire to find immediate shelter and begin the process of recovery. Lynes said Tuesday he had been unaware that they were further victimized by thieves. “It’s devastating, isn’t it?” he said.

Johnson was able to move back in Wednesday, thanks in part to the diligent work of Soracco and the team of contractors he hired to repair the building. He thought it was important to help his tenants however he could, he said, having lost his own home in Turner to a fire in 2007.

People told him he didn’t have to help his tenants pay for hotel rooms when the Red Cross stopped. “I know I don’t have to do that,” he said in frustration.

But neighbors helped him when his house burned, he said. “If everybody would just … ,” he paused, struggling to find words. “It’s like that cliche, ‘What a wonderful world it would be.’”

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