Fire destroyed two multi-unit dwellings at 33 and 35 Island Ave. in Sanford Thursday and damaged three other properties. Authorities believe all tenants got out safely. Firefighters from 25 communities fought the blaze. The fire is under investigation. Credit: Tammy Wells | Journal Tribune

Fire destroyed two Island Avenue apartment buildings Thursday afternoon and damaged three others as firefighters from several communities fought to put out the flames and prevent the fire from spreading even further.

Fire Chief Steve Benotti said firefighters believe all of the occupants of the buildings got out safely.

Tina Allen said she was driving on Island Avenue when the fire first erupted, before firefighters arrived.

“I heard a woman screaming for help and people screaming for her to get out,” said Allen. She said she got out of her car but by that time, the woman had jumped from the third floor of the three-unit 33 Island Ave. property. She said the woman was okay.

In a 4:30 p.m. news conference, Benotti said authorities have no reason to believe the five-alarm fire was anything but an accident.

The department is working with investigators from the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

Benotti said four bystanders experienced medical issues, from a possible heart attack to anxiety.

The fire was reported by multiple callers around 1:16 p.m. Benotti was the first firefighter on the scene three minutes later.

Benotti said 33 and 35 Island Ave. were heavily damaged. Three other properties — one of them recently renovated and about to be occupied, sustained damage.

“We were met with rapidly advancing fire in multiple buildings,” said Benotti, and there were burning power lines in the street.

In all, firefighters from 25 surrounding departments fought the blaze.

Folks who lived in buildings in close proximity to the scene were told to evacuate.

The fire was brought under control by 4 p.m., but firefighters were expected to be at the scene long into the night.

Benotti said as yet firefighters don’t know where the fire started.

Painter Mike McGrath said he had been working at the house directly across the street from 33 Island Ave. and had gone outside for lunch.

“Everything was fine,” he said. McGrath went inside to continue painting but then he heard a noise outside.

“When I came out the whole porch (at 33 Island Ave.) was gone,” McGrath said. “It went up the fastest I’ve ever seen.”

Robin Emmons was taking photos for her photography class at the scene while her husband, Capt. Dwight Emmons, a Sanford firefighter, was fighting the blaze.

“You could see the smoke in North Berwick,” she said.

Deb Marchand was preparing to move onto the first floor of 34 Island Ave. on Nov. 1. She said the woman who was preparing to move into the second floor in November has two children and is expecting another. The mother lived across the street at 35 Island Ave., and lost everything, Marchand said.

Donna Swanson, who manages 34 Island Ave., said she expects it will take a couple of weeks to put the property back in shape so the new tenants can move in.

Swanson said she had been working inside 34 Island Ave., went outside and saw the left side of the second floor of 33 Island Ave. ablaze.

“I’m thankful everyone got out,” she said.

The property at 33 Island Ave. has recently been in the news. Kari Zielke, a city council candidate who lives on nearby Thompson Avenue, had organized a sit-in there a couple of months ago to draw attention to the tenement, where she said there had been frequent drug dealing.

Police and drug agents have made recent arrests in the area.

Deputy Mayor Maura Herlihy said the city’s new rental housing ordinance was designed to protect dense, older neighborhoods like Island Avenue, where there are many multi-unit dwellings in various stages of repair. The ordinance requires landlords to make sure their buildings meet codes.

“People deserve safer housing situations,” she said. “This is why (we passed) the rental ordinance.”

The 33 Island Ave. property is owned by Harry and Geraldine Farris of Epping, New Hampshire, according to city records. The three-story 35 Island Ave. property, built in 1927, is owned by York County Community Action Corporation.

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