MILLINOCKET, Maine — A woman frying hush puppies accidentally started a Labor Day fire that destroyed an eight-unit apartment building, leaving 14 people homeless, officials said Tuesday.
Assistant Fire Chief Thomas Malcolm came away from the wreckage of the 2½-story building on Tuesday and said that the fire started in the kitchen of a resident who moved kitchenware containing burning food to her sink rather than smothering the flames in place. The flames spread to the kitchen wall and into the building’s structure.
The lack of fire barriers in the attic at 120 Wassau St. also contributed to the blaze not stopping there. Firefighters had doused the flames in the woman’s kitchen in unit 3 at Cyr Apartments and on the outside of her first-floor apartment when, still seeing smoke pouring from the long, squat building’s eaves, they opened a door to an attic crawlspace, Malcolm said.
“When they opened the door, the flames exploded,” Malcolm said Tuesday. “The fire had been going and going, and it really went when they opened the door.”
The blaze, which was reported at 1:48 p.m. Monday, kept firefighters picking through remains with an excavator until 9 p.m. Twenty-one firefighters from East Millinocket, Medway, Millinocket and Lincoln assisted.
The Red Cross, relatives and friends are sheltering the 14 occupants, Malcolm said. Initial counts of displaced people provided by the Red Cross were inaccurate, he said. No tenants were injured, but a firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion at the scene, Malcolm said.
“It was so hot and so humid,” the assistant fire chief said. “Everybody was trying to keep themselves hydrated, but the heat just knocks you out.”
Firefighters never really caught up to the flames, Malcolm said. Once they doused the fire in the kitchen and outside the building, he said, they searched the apartment above the woman who had been cooking. Firefighters found no flames there.
By the time firefighters summoned a building maintenance man to open the attic door, the blaze had been growing in the wide-open attic and roof space — something the mandatory fire stops such a building would require today would likely have prevented, Malcolm said.
“That’s how and why building codes change over the years,” Malcolm said.
When the attic spaces burst into flames, firefighters closed the attic door, and the firefighter in command, Kevin McAdam, pulled all personnel out of the building as a safety precaution. It was no longer about saving the building, Malcolm said.
With East Millinocket firefighters already en route, additional help was called for from Medway and Lincoln, particularly Lincoln’s ladder truck, something the three Katahdin region fire departments lack, Malcolm said.
Resident Cassie Kunkel believes that helped doom the building.
“They would have been able to contain a lot of this if the ladder truck didn’t have to come from Lincoln,” she said. “You’d have to think that added 45 minutes to this, it coming from Lincoln. It’s significant.”
Malcolm disagreed. He said that firefighters might have been able to cut into the roof to get at the flames if they had a ladder truck, but the flames were already tearing through the attic because of the building’s lack of fire stops.
Millinocket might spend as much as $100,000 trying to repair its approximately 30-year-old ladder truck, and it cannot afford to buy a more expensive new or used model, Daigle said. The town has been experiencing difficult financial times because of dwindling tax revenue, including delinquent tax payments from Great Northern Paper.
The building had functioning smoke detectors hardwired to power supplies within the structure, Malcolm said. Their beeping was still audible on Tuesday, although those sounds were weak battery warnings that sounded once the building’s electricity was cut off by the fire.
Inspection records were not available at the town office on Tuesday because of Town Code Enforcement Officer Michael Noble’s absence, officials said. Malcolm described the building as well-maintained.
Kunkel was among several residents who had been collecting donated goods or salvaging items from the building since the blaze was first reported. A clerk at Family Dollar, the 29-year-old had taken the day off Tuesday to greet her kindergarten-aged daughter when she came home from school.
Kunkel and her husband, Kenny, spent most of the day helping Cyr Apartments tenants sift through wreckage, while resident Lisa Hayes secured a vacant jewelry store downtown to store donated goods. She and friends also established a Facebook page, the Cyr Apartment Fire Needs and Donation page, which had 270 members as of 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Cassie Kunkel was struck at how one tenant had just moved in three months before the fire.
“She used to be my neighbor across the street,” Kunkel said. “And now she’s homeless. A lot of people have been here forever, but to have just moved in and had this happen to you? That’s unbelievable.”
“We’re going to help everybody out that we can,” she added. “This is a small town. Everybody knows your business here, yeah, but everybody helps each other out, too.”
To make donations, call Lisa Hayes at 447-2879.