LEWISTON, Maine — Almost everyone remembers the massive blaze that tore through three apartment houses on Blake Street last month, but how many recall that a firefighter’s helmet was stolen from the scene?
Quite a few, as it turns out.
Police say they are asked almost daily whether the helmet was returned. So are news reporters and firefighters.
The short answer: No. The helmet has not been returned. Whoever stole it failed to be moved by passionate appeals for its return.
Which angers some people to no end.
“It’s appalling,” said Deputy Chief James Minkowsky of the Lewiston Police Department. “It’s disgusting. It’s absolutely ridiculous that someone would stoop so low as to steal a firefighter’s essential piece of equipment.”
How important was that helmet? Auburn fire crews helping to battle the April 29 blaze encountered a flare-up inside the burning building.
If not for their helmets, Minkowsky said, “we may have lost some firefighters that day.”
At the height of the fire at Blake and Pine streets in Lewiston, Auburn fire Lt. John Gravel set his helmet on the front bumper of one of the trucks while he was changing an air tank. Someone grabbed the helmet, carrying it away like some souvenir instead of protection for a public servant.
“When that helmet was taken,” Minkowsky said, “he was effectively done fighting that fire.”
The stolen helmet meant one less fireman helping to bring the blaze under control, which put just about everyone in greater danger.
“Pretty brazen and senseless,” said Chief Frank L. Roma of the Auburn Fire Department. “Additionally, it put Lt. Gravel in a serious situation of not having the safety equipment needed to do his job. Compromised his safety, and his ability to serve the citizens who were losing their homes and possessions.
“In short,” the chief said, “it was both stupid and self-defeating to those who needed help.”
Gravel’s helmet has a white shield and the number 72 printed on it. Minkowsky guessed the fireman is out between $200 and $300 to replace it.
“But of course, it’s not about the replacement cost,” Minkowsky said.
A month after the devastating blaze, people are no less angry about the stolen helmet. When they ask about it, they shake their heads and use words such as “pathetic” and “vile” — and stronger adjectives.
You might even say it’s personal.
“This devious act during one of our biggest fires was uncalled for,” said Lewiston Fire Investigator Paul Ouellette, a friend of Gravel. “That selfish act took one firefighter off the front line, preventing him from doing his lifesaving duties when he was needed most.”
“Personal?” Ouellette said. “Yes.”
As of Wednesday there was no good news on the investigative front. But police are not giving up on solving the case.
“Sooner or later,” Minkowsky said, “the person who took it is going to get overly confident. They’re going to end up displaying it as a trophy. And hopefully someone who sees it will give us a call.”
Anyone with information about an Auburn firefighter helmet that was stolen from a Blake Street fire scene in Lewiston on April 29 is asked to call Lewiston police at 513-3001.