BRUNSWICK, Maine — Lt. Justin Hagar of the Brunswick Fire Department remembers looking down under the stairs as he climbed to the second floor of 45 Maine St. two years ago and watching flames rising from the basement. Then the stairs began to collapse.
On April 17, 2011, a three-alarm fire at the downtown Brunswick landmark drew some 100 firefighters from 10 communities to fight the blaze that changed the face of downtown Brunswick.
The 1837 building that, at the corner of Maine and Mason streets, marked the end of Maine Street, was lost, and five businesses ruined. Still, 17 tenants, including an infant and one person who was rescued from a third-story window, escaped uninjured. The cause of the fire was officially listed as undetermined.
Hagar, firefighter/paramedic Peter Wild and Capt. Roger Dionne were the first crew on scene that early morning, responding in “heavy, wind-driven rain,” with temperatures in the 40s, according to the official incident report.
Their first concern, Hagar, 30, and Wild, 55, said recently, was for the person “hanging” out of a third-story window. But with the tower truck ready to rescue the resident, they were told to head to the second floor.
As they climbed the stairs, flames ran up the left wall, they said. When the fire showed through electrical outlets, they knew it was inside the walls.
Through holes in the stairs beneath them, Hagar said, “It was pretty obvious that it had a jump on us.”
The smoke on the second floor was blinding, but Hagar said he started a left-hand search, beginning to move to the left continually until he completed a circle. He knew how serious the fire was, he said, because his knees were hot as they crawled across the floor two stories above the flames.
“I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s a real fire. It’s going in the basement [and] for the wood floors upstairs to physically be hot, it’s generating some heat,” Hagar, a firefighter and advanced EMT, said.
Then someone began pulling on Wild’s hose from the ground floor, and he knew, he said, “that it was time to go.”
Neither man remembers the explosion that triggered an evacuation. They said the noise of the fire was overwhelming.
Jeff Emerson, deputy chief of the Brunswick Fire Department, said the half-dozen trucks on scene at the time all sounded their sirens and air horns continuously until everyone was out of the building.
“It woke the whole town of Brunswick up,” he said, but noted that when someone’s surrounded by fire and focused on extinguishing the flames, “You could stand beside them and blow a whistle in their ear, and they wouldn’t hear you.”
According to the official fire report, just before 3 a.m., firefighters tried to open a storefront to locate the fire on the first floor.
“When they did, the fire rolled over and met them at the doorway of the second floor,” the report states. “Delta side [Mason Street] windows blew out, and heavy fire followed. Search crews were immediately told to evacuate, with outside crews sounding their air horns and dispatch sounding evacuation tones over our primary. Two crews got disoriented and had trouble finding a way out.” Both crews, from neighboring communities, safely exited the building.
As they went down the stairs, Hagar said, “The hole was bigger because the risers were burning off, and then the stairs just sort of flopped off over on one side as we were going back down.”
Hagar said Dionne kept his crew so calm during the battle that he emerged from the building and thought they had a chance at saving the enormous building.”
“At that point, I had only seen down through the basement, and Peter was making access to the basement, and we’re trying to deal with searching apartments at the same time, and Roger’s telling us to get out,” he said.
“I said, ‘Cap, we can get this, we can do it, we can stomp it out.’ And he just looked at me and said, ‘You haven’t seen the other side of the building,’ so I walked around and looked, and went, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, maybe we’re not going to get this one.’”
Once the building was cleared for them to return, Wild, who has been with the Brunswick department for 29 years including on-call and full-time status, went down to the basement.
“Every time I would put out the fire I was looking at, I could still hear it,” he said. “It’s in the walls, it’s in the ceilings. And of course, you can’t see anything [because] once you put the fire out, you’ve just turned off the lights.”
Approximately 100 firefighters continued to fight the flames from the outside after they were evacuated from the building until about 10 a.m. that day, but the building was a total loss, and was razed for safety reasons.
Although no one was injured, and an adjacent building that houses the store Blessings still stands, Hagar and Wild insisted that what they and other firefighters did that night, and all the next day, was not “a win,” and its importance pales in comparison with what firefighters do every day, they said.
Emerson offered a different perspective: “It wasn’t a ‘loss’ from our perspective,” he said. “We got everybody out, and nobody was injured in the fire. It certainly wasn’t a ‘loss.’”
“The reality is, we didn’t win there,” Wild said. “We didn’t succeed. We put it out. Well, it ran out of things to burn.”
“Did we pull somebody out of a third-story window? Absolutely,” Hagar said. “Did we make a difference in making sure Blessings didn’t burn down? Absolutely. But the reality is we make more of a difference every day, whether it be on the ambulance or going into a school and teaching kids not to start fires than we ever did that day, or any of the other fires we’ve had.”
Both Wild and Hagar acknowledge that the “crazy” job they do can generate a range of emotions, but they say it’s not the high-profile calls like 45 Maine St. that stay with them.
Hagar said it only occurred to him much later that the stairs had crumbled beneath. He likened his response to a car crash.
“It’s happening so quick, and you’re doing what you’re trained and taught to do,” he said. “You really don’t have a chance to be scared until afterwards and you think back, ‘[Expletive], there was a hole in the stairs, and the stairs were starting to collapse,’ or whatever the challenge may be.”