LEWISTON — Someone set a string of fires before dawn Thursday that left 20 people homeless and revived memories of a wave of apartment house fires that set this city on edge a year ago.

Fire gutted the apartment buildings at 21 and 23 Howe St. on Thursday, displacing seven families and consuming their belongings.

Fire also destroyed a condemned building at the corner of Nichols and Holland streets, which the city planned to tear down in the coming weeks.

Smaller fires at 135 Oxford St. and 48 Howe St. were put out quickly, and an attempted arson at an apartment building on River Street did no damage, fire officials said.

Fire Chief Paul LeClair said no residents were injured, and one firefighter suffered a sprain and bruises in a fall at the fire on Nichols Street.

Police Chief Michael Bussiere, noting the similarity to the fires that raged on three days last spring, said additional resources are being assigned to prevent more fires. Sixteen fire and police investigators are trying to identify possible suspects, he said.

“I can tell you this is a Priority One investigation for all of us,” Bussiere said at a news conference Thursday afternoon in front of 21 Howe St., flanked by LeClair and Sgt. Ken Grimes of the state Fire Marshal’s Office.

Rachel Morin, who lives next door to 44 Nichols St., said she felt fortunate that her family had escaped unharmed.

Taking pictures of the melted siding on her building, just a few feet from the garage of the condemned building that burned, Morin recalled the anxiety of a year ago when the fires were breaking out across the city.

“This was too close to home,” she said, flanked by her two sons, ages 13 and 10. “We don’t need that firebug back.”

Three fires over eight spring days last year destroyed nine apartment buildings and displaced more than 200 of the city’s poorest residents. Most of those residents were living in poverty, many of them refugees from war-torn African nations. Government agencies, volunteers and social workers needed more than two months to find homes for all of them.

All that remains where those buildings stood are vacant lots that Lewiston officials have said will likely stay empty for years.

Police charged four people – two adults and two juveniles – with setting the fires.

The case against one of the adults, Bryan Wood, was dismissed after he was found incompetent to stand trial because of his limited intellect.

The case against Brody Covey, one of the juveniles, was dismissed because police failed to read him his constitutional rights before questioning him.

The cases against the other juvenile and Brian Morin, the other adult, are still pending.

MAN RUSHED TO ALERT RESIDENTS

On Thursday morning, Crystal Thompson was wrapped in a blanket from the American Red Cross, staring at the black opening that had been her second-floor bedroom window at 21 Howe St. She said she was waiting to see if firefighters could find the pink granite urn that contained the ashes of her infant daughter, who died in 1999.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said, positive at that point that the fire had been set intentionally.

Thompson described being asleep in her apartment when someone pounded on her door at 4 a.m., yelling that the building was on fire. At first she was disoriented and thought it was a burglary. Then she roused her two teenage sons and threw them toward the apartment door.

As soon as they were outside, they heard a series of small explosions, like propane tanks for an outdoor grill.

Thompson said the person who woke her and other residents of the building may have saved their lives.

Kulmiye Idris was that person.

Idris, who served as a Marine, including a tour in Kuwait, said he ran on adrenaline as flames engulfed the back of the apartment building.

Idris had been sleeping at 48 Howe St. Fortunately, his girlfriend’s 5-month-old baby wasn’t sleeping.

Zhalen was fussy and wouldn’t go to sleep, said his mother, Shauwna Conrad. “My eyes started burning after a while, and (the baby’s) eyes are more sensitive than mine,” she said.

She smelled burning paper. “Then the smoke was coming up here,” she said.

Idris opened the apartment door and saw a cloud of smoke in a stairway. He ran down a flight of stairs to stamp out the fire on a small pile of mail and fliers, then looked down the street.

“There was like a gigantic plume of smoke up in the air,” he said. There were no firefighters or police.

Idris ran down Howe Street and saw a man helping a woman in a wheelchair out of the apartment building. He asked for the building’s address and called it in to 911, he said.

“The whole back side of the building was on fire,” he said. He didn’t realize there was another apartment building there, and that it was on fire.

Idris ran into 21 Howe St. and up the stairs, banging on apartment doors on the second and third floors and yelling for people to wake up.

Residents, some in bathrobes, some in shorts, spilled bleary-eyed from their apartments. “They were scared and confused,” he said.

Thompson said she thought at first that it was a joke, or maybe a burglary. Then she saw Idris silhouetted by flame-lit smoke.

Even in the apartments, Idris said, he saw the light and smoke from the fire. But he heard no smoke alarms. “It was really bad,” he said. “It was full-blown fire.”

He and the man who had helped the first-floor tenant in the wheelchair then started waking neighbors in the buildings on either side of the burning building. Idris then ran to Ash Street and flagged down an approaching police cruiser.

He said he didn’t stop to think about his actions, and just wanted to do something helpful.

“I hope somebody would do that for us in the same situation,” he said.

As fire crews arrived and started battling the fire, Bates College opened a warming hut at nearby Chase Hall and provided a van to help shelter displaced residents.

By late Thursday, the American Red Cross had found emergency accommodations for all 20 people from seven families that had been displaced, Red Cross spokesman John Lamb said in a prepared statement.

CALLS FOR REINFORCEMENTS

The first fire was reported at 1 a.m., when trash was set on fire in a hallway at 135 Oxford St., said LeClair, the fire chief. That fire was put out quickly, and investigators have determined that it was intentionally set.

The next call came at 3 a.m., a little over a mile away at a vacant building at 44 Nichols St. that had placards prohibiting entry because of its dilapidated condition.

Rachel Morin said her neighbors had been trying in recent weeks to get an old mattress and other debris removed from the first-floor landing between the building and the garage.

That fire did extensive damage to the rear of the building and to a garage, LeClair said. It also destroyed a car next door.

The vehicle’s owner woke at 3 a.m. for her job delivering newspapers and saw the flames. She said she grabbed her 9-year old son and her cat, Bastian, then woke her neighbors. The woman, who would not give her name, said the fire was immense by the time they got out.

At 4:30 a.m., the call came in for the fire at 21 and 23 Howe St. With Lewiston crews still at the fire on Nichols Street, fire crews from Auburn, Lisbon and Sabattus responded, LeClair said.

“It had a really good head start on us and it had spread to both buildings,” he said.

The department struck a third alarm summoning all off-duty firefighters to help fight the blazes.

Firefighters could not get inside the buildings, but worked to extinguish the fire from outside to keep it from spreading to nearby apartment buildings.

The buildings’ owner, who declined to be interviewed, said he has insurance.

Bussiere, the police chief, said the building on Nichols Street will be torn down soon, and the apartment buildings on Howe Street also will be demolished.

 

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Twitter: @Mainehenchman