GARDINER — A man was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation, three firefighters were injured by falling bricks and 12 tenants were left homeless after a Water Street fire swept across four connected buildings with apartments Thursday afternoon, engulfing the downtown in acrid, light-colored smoke and prompting the mayor to call it a “community disaster.”
Flames were first reported showing from the upper floor of an apartment building at 235 Water St. about 4:30 p.m. and the fire had been mostly doused by about 8 p.m. City officials and firefighters still were assessing the sweep of the damage Thursday night and were expected to be cleaning up until midnight.
The blaze displaced 12 tenants and the four damaged buildings are likely a total loss, according to Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson. He said 235 Water St. probably would need to be demolished.
Pam Alsop, who lives on the second floor of 235 Water St., said in an interview Thursday night that she was sitting in her living room when the hallway smoke alarm went off. When she went into the hallway, her neighbor’s door was open and smoke was billowing out. She said a male neighbor had a “black smoke ring” around his mouth and asked for a fire extinguisher. Alsop said she heard that he is the tenant who was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, but she didn’t know what caused the fire.
Alsop said she called for her cat, but she had to leave it behind.
“I couldn’t see. It filled up with smoke so fast,” she said. “It was amazing.”
At least one downtown business sustained damage — Touch of Grey Tattoo Studio, which opened two weeks ago at 247 Water St., according to Patrick Wright, Gardiner’s economic development coordinator. Gardiner City Councilor Terry Berry said he understood that some of the upper floors in that building were being used for artists’ studios.
Businesses and residents from the Arcade parking lot to Gerard’s Pizza were ordered to evacuate buildings after a fire spread from 235 Water St.
Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett, who was watching the firefighting response Thursday afternoon, said he was thankful for the city’s professional firefighters and crews from other communities, and that no one was killed.
“This is a tremendous multi-unit response to a community disaster right now,” Harnett said.
Around 6:30 p.m., three firefighters suffered minor injuries and were taken to the hospital after a partial roof collapse caused bricks to fall from the fourth floor of the 235 Water St. building.
Sgt. Ken Grimes, of the Office of the State Fire Marshal, arrived at the scene and said he anticipated investigators would have to wait for the fire to cool off — probably sometime Friday morning — before they could safely get into the buildings to probe the cause.
“We’re trying to establish who was in the building,” Grimes said as he watched the firefighters at the rear of the buildings. “We’re waiting for the owner of the building to come up to give us a list of the names of the occupants.”
Grimes said any of the tenants who were home would be asked about what they saw or heard around the time of the blaze. Tenants at City Hall on Thursday night were being interviewed by the fire marshal’s office.
Harnett said the city had funding available to pay for a stay Thursday night at the Motel 6 in Augusta for people whom the fire had displaced. A clerk at the hotel Friday night said that just one displaced person had checked in so far.
The city planned to set up a relief fund and the American Red Cross had set up at City Hall to provide assistance to victims.
‘LIKE A VOLCANO’
The fire appeared to spread from 235 Water St. into three adjacent clapboard buildings to the west. Firefighters attacked the roaring blaze from the back and front sides, with long ladders to reach the roofs and to spray water on the buildings from above. Water streamed down the outside of the building and quashed bright orange flames on the upper floors clearly visible to hundreds of bystanders.
One of those watching, Roger Badershall, had driven from his Augusta home to ensure that a friend who lives across the street was safe; she was, and then he stayed to watch the firefighting and large plumes of white smoke.
“It looked like a volcano,” he said.
Karen Adrienne, owner and founder of Artdogs Studios, watched the firefighting efforts from a small park on Water Street. Although her building was not threatened by the fire, “we knew enough to get out of the building,” she said.
She and some of her neighbors said the buildings involved in the fire dated from the late 1860s. “The brick buildings have double firewalls; hopefully (the fire) can be contained,” she said.
As with most of the properties, the first floors facing Water Street were used for business and/or retail operations and the upper floors as apartments.
“We’ve been working so hard to rejuvenate the downtown,” Adrienne said, nodding her head in disbelief.
Berry echoed her concerns. “This is devastating for Main Street,” he said. “There’s been so much effort from the community, from the people that support their families in downtown Gardiner.”
Eric Dyer, director of the recently opened Gardiner Food Co-op & Cafe, which was closer to the fire, said the business closed early, hoping to keep workers and customers safe.
“We’re keeping the doors closed to keep the smoke out,” he said. “I’m grateful for solid brick all around a recently upgraded sprinkler system.”
A worker at Gerard’s Pizza, which is at 233 Water St., answered the phone about 4:45 p.m. but said he was told to leave. He said smoke was coming into his business.
Firefighters came from several area departments to assist Gardiner — including those in Augusta, Farmingdale, Randolph, Pittston, Togus, West Gardiner and Winthrop — and some came from as far away as Topsham and Winslow. Spectators gathered as ladder trucks reached toward the smoking buildings.
At 5:45 p.m., heavy smoke was still showing from at least three or four buildings and firefighters were battling the blaze at the front and rear of the buildings, training three water guns at 235 Water St., with a concentration on the third and fourth floors. A ladder truck was aiming at 247 Water St. Firefighters were still battling the blaze shortly before 6:30 p.m. when a partial roof collapse occurred at the rear of one of the buildings, resulting in minor injuries to firefighters when falling bricks hit them.
Meanwhile, Water Street was completely blocked off, with a fire hose snaking across it and hundreds of people gathering to watch the response, both on Water Street and in the Arcade lot.
By 7 p.m., firefighters were bringing down the tall truck ladders and beginning cleanup work. The fire appeared mostly out by around 8 p.m., except for some hot spots, and fire crews from other communities were released from the scene by 9 p.m.
Betty Adams — 621-5631