GORHAM, Maine — The 31-year-old Gorham House of Pizza was described Friday as a community gathering place and favorite spot for local sports teams celebrating victory. But the beloved downtown eatery, where three of the four floors were destroyed by a Thursday night fire, was not a case of arson.
“This is a low point of my life and I hope to move forward,” said House of Pizza owner Angelo Sotiropoulos Friday morning at the scene. “But I cannot see anybody wanting to harm the House of Pizza. A lot of people care for this place.”
The announcement that the fire was accidental — made by state investigators Friday morning after fire crews stayed on scene all night picking through debris and watching for flare-ups — offered some small consolation for a town still on edge after a string of five intentionally set fires in about three weeks.
“I think everybody thought immediately [the House of Pizza incident] had to do with the other fires,” said Lisa Becker, a volunteer at the Gorham Clothes Closet, on Friday.
“My immediate reaction was that it could be another arson fire,” Gorham’s Deputy Fire Chief Ken Fickett told the Bangor Daily News on Friday. “I called the state Fire Marshal’s Office immediately.”
Assistant Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said investigators are still actively seeking the perpetrator or perpetrators of the five cases of arson seen in Gorham in recent weeks, and that his team is treating the crimes as connected. State investigators, with local help, have canvassed the town and handed out leaflets in hopes of receiving tips to help break open the case.
“Right now, our focus is to try and get as much information, in as many different ways, as we can,” Thomas said. “It takes time, but we are getting information almost continuously on a daily basis. … The public is still very active with us and assisting us in trying to get the information that way.”
Recent fires in Gorham determined to be cases of arson have destroyed or damaged abandoned homes on Stiller Road and Great Falls Road, a former Grange Hall on Mighty Road, a two-car garage on Buck Street and a home under construction on Dingley Spring Road.
But the blaze that gutted the attic and caused extensive damage to the second and third floors of the House of Pizza Building, Fickett said, was caused by a malfunction in the second-floor bathroom fan. The deputy chief said the fire was reported around 9:30 p.m. Thursday and firefighters had the site under control within about 90 minutes, but stayed overnight to douse hot spots and prevent rekindling.
He said crews from Windham, Westbrook, Scarborough, Buxton and Saco joined Gorham firefighters at the scene, while teams from Portland and South Portland provided coverage.
“The attic area in the third floor was heavily involved [when firefighters arrived],” Fickett said. “Thick black smoke was coming out of the eaves.”
None of the eight tenants of the apartments who lived on the upper floors of the structure, including a group of five University of Southern Maine students who shared an apartment, were injured in the fire.
“Our fire alarms started going off,” recalled Margaret Kelly Mosher, a senior musical theater major at USM. “We thought it was a malfunction, then we saw smoke everywhere.”
Roommate Jericah Potvin was visiting her boyfriend 45 minutes away when Mosher called her to say their apartment was on fire, and that she should come back.
“When I turned onto the main street, I was shocked at the amount of smoke,” said Potvin, a USM junior. “It’s hard to see the roof over your bedroom on fire.”
The students said university officials called and offered them campus housing and meal plans, and Becker from the donation-based Gorham Clothes Closet reached out to offer clean, dry clothes.
Sotiropoulos reopened a previously short-lived pizza shop in February of 1981, undertook an ambitious remodeling of the building in 1985 and over the past quarter century established it as a beloved community gathering place. He said he plans to rebuild the Gorham House of Pizza using the insurance coverage for the structure.
“People come here not only to eat, but to be comfortable,” he said. “It feels like home to a lot of people.”