AUGUSTA — A fire that forced tenants of a Cedar Court apartment building to flee was intentionally set, according to authorities.

The tenant of the second floor apartment where the fire started early Tuesday morning, David Malia, 59, was hospitalized for smoke inhalation and is in critical condition at MaineGeneral Medical Center, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

A tenant of the apartment building at 11 Cedar Court, who kicked in the door to gain access to Malia’s apartment where the fire started, said he saw a pile of clothing and other items on fire in the apartment.

Kevin Meserve, who lives directly above the apartment with building owner Sabrina Moulton and their two daughters, ages 2 and 5, woke tenants around 5:30 a.m. to alert them to the fire before he kicked in Malia’s door.

“It took about five good kicks,” Meserve said. “The door was bolted shut, but I kicked the door in and smoke hit me about waist high.

“I got down on one knee and saw a pile of stuff, about a foot and a half high, burning,” he said. “I was going to crawl in to put it out but by then the cops were right on my tail, and they told me to get out. I said, ‘Dave is still in there,’ but they said the fire department would get him.”

Firefighters found Malia in a back bedroom on their second search through the apartment building after not finding him on their initial search, said Fire Chief Roger Audette.

Audette said Malia, who was conscious when they found him, suffered from smoke inhalation and was taken by ambulance to MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta.

Sgt. Ken Grimes of the Maine state fire marshal’s office said the fire started in Malia’s living room and was intentionally set.

He said no charges have been filed, and authorities haven’t yet been able to interview Malia because of his condition.

Michael Starn owned the building for decades before turning it over to Moulton, his granddaughter, earlier this month. Starn, who is also Hallowell’s city manager, said Malia had rented from him for about 20 years and Malia had not caused problems previously.

“It’s just a sad situation,” said Starn, adding: “I’m grateful everybody got out.”

Jackie Nelson, Moulton’s grandmother, lives on the first floor of the building and said smoke detectors were going off but she was asleep and is also hard of hearing. She credited Meserve for getting both she and other tenants out of the building safely by yelling and knocking on doors and walls throughout the building.

“I was sound asleep, if (Meserve) hadn’t used his voice, and pounded on the walls, the way he did, I never would have heard it,” Nelson said. “If it weren’t for the smoke alarms, they never would have gotten out of there without him.”

Another tenant, a young man, escaped out his second floor apartment window onto a roof, then jumped down to a shed roof, then the ground, Audette said.

Audette said firefighters were alerted to the fire by a 911 call.

“This was a close call,” Audette said. “A minute can make all the difference. A fire can double in size in a minute. The guys were here within two minutes of getting the call.”

Nelson said her apartment was not damaged much by the fire, though it still smelled like smoke later Tuesday morning.

Starn said the worst damage was confined to the second floor apartment, and he hoped tenants could return to apartments elsewhere in the building soon. He had workers on the way to start on repairs Tuesday.

He said he believes the ornate five-unit, all-occupied building was built in the 1870s. He said he wasn’t sure if it is insured.

Audette said some tenants would likely be put up by the American Red Cross in a motel room, at least for Tuesday night.

Togus, Gardiner and Winthrop firefighters responded to help fight the fire.

Keith Edwards – 621-5647 | [email protected] | Twitter: @kedwardskj