AUGUSTA, Maine — At about noon on Jan. 10, a fire broke out at an apartment building at 55 Sewall St. More than 60 firefighters from 10 different departments battled the blaze. By the time it was out, 14 residents were left homeless.
No one was injured in the fire. Public safety officials say some of the credit for that goes to 12-year-old Brianna Mannisto and her mother, Rebecca Connors.
Connors, 34, said she was at home when Brianna called her to say she was sick and wanted to come home from St. Michael Catholic School.
“I went to the school to pick her up early and she took quite a while to come down [to meet me],” said Connors on Friday. “She dropped her book bag and everything fell out.”
While they were getting into the car, Brianna noticed smoke coming from a second-story porch on an apartment building across the street from the school, said Connors.
“It looked like someone was cooking on a grill that caught fire,” said the mother. “It looked like it was contained, but a big gust of wind came. There was a Christmas tree near the grill and it caught the tree on fire. Brianna said ‘Oh my God, call 911!’”
When the propane tank next to the grill exploded soon after, Brianna left the car and ran to the principal’s office at the school to get the children indoors who were outside at recess.
Connors ran in the opposite direction.
“I ran into the apartment building,” said Connors. “I started banging on doors and screaming that their house was on fire and to get out. The Fire Department got there about the time everyone got out of the building.”
Connors said several people had been sleeping in the building.
“One woman was taking a nap with her 6-month-old baby,” she said. “I only went up to the second floor [of three stories] because there was a second explosion that was very loud. I couldn’t take that chance. I was screaming.”
Augusta police Sgt. Richard Dubois said one of the men Connors awakened went up to the third floor to alert those tenants. All six people who were in the building got out safely.
“They probably saved people’s lives,” Dubois said of the mother and daughter.
Dubois said the Police Department called Connors and Mannisto to the station where Dubois presented them with a token of appreciation.
“We have a little coin that says ‘Augusta PD’ on one side,” said Dubois. “We give it to people if they did a good deed or an act that saves someone’s life.”
Dubois said Battalion Fire Chief John Bennett also thanked the pair on behalf of the fire department.
St. Michael Catholic School Principal Janet Galati said the heroic act was announced over the intercom the day after the fire.
“Brianna and her mother saved lives and their acts of heroism are fine examples of the true spirit of St. Michael School,” Galati said in a statement. “We thank them from the bottom of our hearts.”
People greeted Brianna in her class to thank her for helping get the word out about the fire.
“A lot of people were saying ‘thank you’ and stuff like that,” said Mannisto. “It made me feel really good. A few of the classes came in and said thank you.”
Connors said she was proud of her daughter’s quick thinking.
“The first thing she did was say, ‘Mom, the house was on fire,’” said Connors. “She was like, ‘Call 911.’ She was on it.”
Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette said the state fire marshal’s office concluded that the fire was started by improper disposal of smoking materials.
He added that between $250,000 and $300,000 worth of damage was done to the building. The building is not habitable, he said.
Lincoln Elementary School in Augusta is raising funds to help three families who were displaced by the fire. Three children of those families attend the school.
“As of today, including cash and gift cards, $2,271 has been raised,” said Diane Cloutier, secretary at Lincoln Elementary. “We also have a room full of things — clothes, bedding, things like that. They were pretty shocked at what’s been handed their way. They weren’t expecting that.”
Connors said she believes she and her daughter were meant to alert people about the fire.
“I firmly believe everything happens for a reason,” said Connors. “If my daughter had not dropped all her stuff out of her book bag that day, we would’ve walked out a little earlier and not seen the house on fire.”
Dubois said that despite it being a busy section of the city, no one else reported the fire.
“If it went on a little longer, someone may have been killed,” he said.