LEWISTON, Maine — Four apartment houses and a garage were burning late Friday night after a fast-moving fire rousted dozens from their homes.
At about 10:15 p.m., a garage behind 149 Bartlett St. went up in flames. Within minutes, the apartment house itself was burning and flames were jumping to nearby tenements, including a building on Pierce Street.
“People came running out and they just scattered,” said Scott Vachon, who lives near the burning buildings. “People were screaming, ‘fire, fire!’ Mothers were screaming for their children. Other people were just shouting and crying. It was terrible.”
Vachon believes the garage was intentionally set on fire. The flames moved unnaturally fast, he said, from one part of the building to another.
“The fire just kept climbing and climbing,” he said. “It caught the building on fire and it just lit right up.”
By early Saturday, one minor injury was reported.
The scene, between Birch and Walnut streets, was pandemonium from the start. Hundreds of people filled the streets and sidewalks, screaming for each other and trying to find missing loved ones.
Several people stood on sidewalks, crying and clutching babies, pets or belongings. Many were in pajamas. One woman leaned against a utility pole, tears rolling down her face as she watched flames devour her home.
One man, who rushed out of one of the burning buildings with just the clothes on his back, was homeless for the second time this week: He had lived on Blake Street, he said, before that building went up in flames Monday.
Robin Johnson was at her home at 141 Bartlett St., with her sons, ages 5 and 9 months, when the building next door went up in flames.
“The fire was so unbelievable. I could feel the heat of it from inside my apartment,” Johnson said. “I’ve never gotten my children out so fast in my life. I think I literally dragged my 5-year-old out. I picked up the baby and we got out of there.”
Early reports are that everybody had been safely removed from the burning building and from nearby apartment houses.
“I had all my guys getting into those buildings and getting people out,” police Sgt. James Theiss said. “It was tough, but they did a great job.”
When 149 Bartlett St. went up in flames, it spread to a building behind it, on Pierce Street, and a condemned tenement to the left. One person was unable to get out of his Pierce Street home because of a disability. Firefighters and police headed in to get that person out.
By 11:30 p.m., two buildings were burning on Pierce Street. It was believed two had burned on Bartlett Street, as well. One man rousted from his apartment said the three-bay garage where the fire started had been condemened for the past six months.
Another man, Shawn Greeley, was in his apartment at 139 Bartlett St. when he heard a commotion next door. When he looked out his window, he saw a wall of flame where the garage stood.
“It was going up real good,” he said. “Somebody set that garage on fire, there’s not a doubt in my mind.”
Rumors of arson were already moving up and down Bartlett Street, even as the fire was being battled. Lewiston fire Investigator Paul Ouellette was immediately called to the scene. He was calling in the police Criminal Investigation Division as well as investigators from the state fire marshal’s office.
Also at the scene was Lewiston police Chief Michael Bussiere, who oversaw the investigation into the fire that left 75 homeless earlier in the week. At midnight, Bussiere was getting briefed on the latest investigation.
When the building first went up in flames, the fire could be seen from as far away as Auburn. For the second time in five days, a thick cloud of gray smoke floated across downtown Lewiston.
Also for the second time since Monday, the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army were sending representatives to the scene. It was not immediately clear how many people would be displaced by the fire.
Johnson, with her two young sons, was unsure of where she’d spend the night. She was told she wouldn’t be able to go back into her apartment at 141 Bartlett St. until Saturday at the soonest.
Just before midnight, she stood on Walnut Street wearing pajamas and slippers. She had her baby in her arms and was holding the hand of her son. She looked across the sea of people who jammed several streets around the fire scene.
“Right now,” she said, “I have to go find my husband.”
The firefighting efforts continued Saturday morning. Officials said the number of buildings directly affected by fire could be as many as seven.
Auburn, Lisbon, Woodstock, Topsham, Gray, New Gloucester, Paris and Oxford fire departments responded to the blaze, according to early reports.
Early Saturday morning, a stretch of Bartlett Street between Birch and Walnut streets was closed to traffic. Police said it would likely remained closed for hours. A section of Pierce Street was also closed as firefighters continued to battle stubborn flames.
The fire comes four days after three multistory apartment buildings on Blake, Bates and Pine streets were destroyed by fire. Seventy-five people were left homeless.
A 12-year-old boy has been charged with three counts of arson in connection with Monday’s fire, police said Thursday.