FORT KENT, Maine — Three investigators with the state fire marshal’s office have yet to determine the cause of a massive fire that early Sunday morning destroyed three buildings and left 11 residents homeless.
Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said late Monday that the investigation would continue into Tuesday. He said the extent of the damage is making it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the fire which started in the back of the historic Nadeau’s House of Furniture building.
Monday was a day for cleaning up and taking stock after firefighters from nine communities responded to the fire just after midnight Sunday that has left a gaping hole in the town’s West Main Street business district.
Destroyed were Nadeau’s House of Furniture, the Acadia Home Care building and a vacant building in between.
Seven apartments on the second floors of those buildings were home to 11 people — all of whom were accounted for within hours of the fire’s start.
Matt Bard, an employee with the town’s public works department, who was making a routine inspection of water pumps behind the buildings because of the rising St. John River, first spotted the fire just after midnight Sunday morning and alerted police.
The tenants were safely evacuated with only minutes to spare and no injuries were reported.
Most escaped with only the clothes on their backs and in one case a resident made it out after learning of the fire via a text message from a friend in Bangor who had seen photos of the blaze uploaded to Facebook.
“My first concern when I saw the flames were the people living in the apartments,” Nadeau’s House of Furniture owner Pat Labbe said Monday.
“When I looked and saw them all lined up across the street, I was overcome with emotion.”
While the big question for many in town is whether the second-generation furniture store will rebuild, Labbe is more concerned with the immediate welfare of his former tenants.
“I will contribute to any fundraisers as much as I can to help them and to help the tenants from the other buildings,” he said, adding members of the community have already begun a major fundraising initiative.
Spearheading that initiative is Alan Susee, owner of the Sears store directly across the street from the fire scene.
Sears, along with neighboring Radio Shack and Roger’s Sports Center, sustained some cosmetic and minor structural damage due to the fire’s extreme heat which melted signs and cracked windows.
Susee is quick to acknowledge the work of the firefighters in saving his and the other businesses.
“I feel so fortunate to have escaped this [fire] relatively unscathed,” Susee said Monday. “I care about people and it is tragic they have lost everything they own.”
His Sears store and Norstate Federal Credit Union are now the official collection points for cash donations for victims of the fire.
“I volunteered to do this,” Susee said. “It makes sense as my store is open seven days a week.”
On Sunday, Susee challenged the area’s businesses with a fundraising campaign after he donated $500 to the cause. By Monday several other businesses had stepped up meeting that amount with more promised to come in.
Other fundraising efforts are springing up on Facebook and a benefit is planned for April 11 at the Swamp Buck Restaurant in Fort Kent.
“I can’t believe the support we are getting from everyone,” John Kilcollins, 27, said Monday afternoon. “Tons of people are helping us out.”
Kilcollins, his wife and 14-month-old daughter lived in one of the apartments above the furniture store and were evacuated minutes before flames engulfed the structure.
“We were sleeping in the living room with the television on,” Kilcollins said. “We heard pounding at the door and it was [Fort Kent Police Officer] Richard Martin telling us we had to get out because there was a fire.”
The family got out and managed to save one of their pet cats. The second cat is unaccounted for.
“Then we just stood there and watched the place burn down,” Kilcollins said.
“Right now our focus is on those tenants,” Don Guimond, Fort Kent town manager said Monday. “We are working to provide help for them and we need to get a handle on that.”
Guimond credited “a lot of good people helping” for the fact that all of the displaced residents had found alternate living arrangements with friends or family.
Only one resident needed to use a voucher supplied by the American Red Cross for temporary housing in the local motel.
Representatives with the Caribou office of the Red Cross were in town Monday offering assistance to displaced residents allowing them to purchase food, clothing and other necessities.
“The town unfortunately does not have the funding resources to help with any [business] rebuilding,” Guimond said. “But we will certainly try to work with the property owners and assist them as they deal with state or federal agencies.”
It was too early to say if Nadeau’s House of Furniture will rise from the ashes, Labbe said Monday.
“We just don’t know at this time,” he said. “Our insurance adjuster was here and we have some research to do.”
A related business, Nadeau’s House of Flooring owned by Dave Labbe, was located in a building behind the furniture store and was saved.
On Monday the second generation of Labbes to operate the businesses — brothers Pat, Dave and Phil Labbe — were gathered at the flooring store where a steady stream of well-wishers were coming through the door and the phone was ringing off the hook with offers of help and words of encouragement.
“Everyone is alive and well and the tenants are going to be fine,” Pat Labbe said over and over to those coming in. “Everything will be fine.”
There were a few bright spots. The 100-year-old safe housed in the store’s office was charred, but it had protected the contents, including receipts, orders and customer accounts from the fire’s heat.
Much of the inventory ordered over the past two weeks had already been delivered to customers and the combustible store of heating coal in the building’s basement was at two tons — far less than the 30-ton stockpile at the beginning of winter.
“Plus Dave is open for business,” Pat Labbe said.
Residents displaced by the fire still in need of assistance may call the American Red Cross in Caribou at 493-4620, ext. 108, between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.