PORTLAND, Maine — A three-alarm fire gutted the basements of several Wharf Street businesses in the Old Port early Thursday morning.
The fire, which started at about 1:30 a.m. and burned until after 5 a.m., displaced about 10 people, none of whom were injured, Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said.
Fire crews were called after smoke was seen billowing from the brick buildings between Fore and Wharf streets. When they arrived, crews found the fire in the sub-basement of one of the five Wharf Street businesses damaged in the fire.
Fighting the fire was challenging because of the age of the building and how it was constructed, LaMoria said.
“This was a very difficult fire and one that was very labor intensive to access and open the walls,” he said, noting that crews cut the power off to the building as a safety measure. “Each section had one stairwell in and out, which makes for a very difficult fire to fight.”
The blaze damaged businesses including the Dancing Elephant II Indian restaurant, Joe’s New York Slice Bar, and Mark’s Place, LaMoria said. There were also reports of damage to Street & Co. The apartments above the businesses were not damaged by the fire, but were damaged by smoke and water.
Joe Kelley, owner of Joe’s New York Slice Bar, said he did a quick walk-through of the restaurant Thursday and that it had a “horrible smoke and chemical smell.”
“It’s a full loss of beer, liquor, food — everything that was in coolers has to be thrown out because the electricity was cut,” he said, standing in front of his Fore Street restaurant at about noon.
Kelley, who lives in Portsmouth, N.H., and owns several other restaurants there, said while his business was not damaged by fire, he is not sure when it will be able to reopen.
“It could be a couple of days or a couple of weeks,” he said, noting that the extent of the damage to the electrical system is still unknown. “And, how do you get that smell out? I won’t reopen until it doesn’t smell like death in there.”
In the meantime, all of his employees will be out of work, he said.
“We’re going to have to spend money and hope our insurance covers some of it,” Kelley said. “It could be a larger building issue.”
Chris Gould, owner and resident of the easternmost building damaged by the fire, at 414 Fore St., said the apartments upstairs had “pretty good smoke damage inside.”
“I haven’t really heard anything. I’m just waiting for them to turn the power back on,” he said. “I don’t really have any thoughts right now.”
Most of the damage was to property reportedly owned by Joseph Soley, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Portland Fire Department had 65 firefighters respond to the fire. An additional 40 responded from neighboring fire departments, LaMoria said.
He said it’s still unclear what caused the fire, but that state fire investigators were on the scene and are trying to determine the origin.
At noon, firefighters were still pumping water into the basement to douse the remaining hot spots. Outside the Dancing Elephant, insulation and debris were piled up on Wharf Street as onlookers stopped to gawk at the damage.
The fire closed sections of Fore, Dana, Commercial and Wharf streets. All but Wharf Street were reopened by about 9 a.m.
The Red Cross is assisting displaced residents.