After fire destroyed the post office Tuesday morning in downtown Winthrop, postal workers were taking stock of all that was lost, and some area residents are worried and wondering what’s become of their mail.

While the post office’s red brick walls were still standing Tuesday, much of the rest of the building was destroyed. Its insides were “totally gutted,” according to Winthrop Fire Chief Dan Brooks, and a large part of the metal roof collapsed after the fire first was reported at 8:54 a.m.

Workers saw smoke coming out of a ceiling tile in the building and heard a crackling noise coming from the attic, said Steve Doherty, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service. They all had exited the building safely by the time its interior was consumed by flames and smoke was billowing out of its eaves. The post office had not opened to the public for the day yet when the fire was reported.

The fire’s cause hasn’t been identified, and officials said what became of the mail in the building is unclear. In addition to serving five delivery routes, the Winthrop post office also housed 545 post office boxes and offered retail mailing services. The population of Winthrop is about 6,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With tax season in full swing and many Americans waiting for their tax forms to arrive in the mail, that uncertainty could cause consternation for some Winthrop residents.

Kevin Leary lives with his girlfriend in Winthrop and said Tuesday afternoon that he’s worried some of their mail might have been in the post office when it burned down.

After the heavy snow that fell last week, Leary said, their mailbox was covered in a snowbank and no mail arrived. Leary finally got around to digging out his mailbox last weekend, but with Monday being a holiday, there was no chance for a delivery.

“Our assumption is that our mail was at the post office and is now gone,” Leary said. “It’s either burned or covered in water.”

Leary’s tax forms already have arrived this year and he does his bills online, he said, so he’s not overly concerned about what might have been lost, other than some family Valentine’s Day cards.

“Maybe some junk mail met its demise sooner than had been planned,” he said.

But Leary added, “We’re luckier than others, who were probably expecting or mailing important tax information. We’re curious to find out what we had missed, if anything.”

Doherty, the Postal Service spokesman, did not know the condition of the mail that was stored in the Winthrop post office. He said two postal inspectors will return to the facility Wednesday to determine how many pieces of mail were waiting to be delivered and to what extent they were damaged. Those inspectors were not able to provide any information by late Tuesday, Doherty said.

“That data is stored somewhere,” Doherty said. “They’ll be able to determine with some certainty how much mail was in that building.”

If the inspectors determine that pieces of mail have been destroyed, Doherty said, the Postal Service will send a letter to the recipients notifying them about the fire damage.

He advised anyone whose mail might have been affected in the fire to do a couple of things. If they received a tracking code for their mail, they should visit the Postal Service website and check on whether its last stop was at the Winthrop facility. If it was, they should file a claim as soon as possible, either online or by calling 800-275-8777.

If the recipients of mail don’t have tracking information, Doherty advised them to contact the sender to check the status of the delivery.

The Postal Service’s claims department handles requests on a “case by case basis,” according to Doherty. Among the factors that are considered are whether a recipient has purchased insurance and whether the person can demonstrate having purchased the item with a sales receipt, bill of sale or other documentation.

If the piece of mail included important documents such as a government check and it was deemed to be destroyed, Doherty said, the Postal Service could provide a letter describing what happened that would help the recipient secure a duplicate.

Doherty did not know the future of the burned-out post office and said that officials will be discussing its fate in the coming days.

In a news release, Doherty said that home delivery will continue in Winthrop, with carriers now working out of Augusta.

Several services will be relocated to the post office at 31 Readfield Road in Manchester, including retrieval of mail that was destined for post office boxes in Winthrop or that wasn’t received at a home address because it required a signature.

No information about the cause of the fire was available Tuesday.

Because the post office was a federal building, an investigator from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was planning to return to the site on Wednesday to try to establish what caused the fire, Brooks said.

Main Street was closed to traffic as firefighters worked at the scene. Multiple area fire departments sent units, including Winthrop, Monmouth, Augusta and the six towns in the Lakes Region Mutual Aid group, Brooks said. They were at the scene until 2:30 p.m., making sure no hot spots were hidden under the building’s collapsed roof.

The weather was mild Tuesday morning, and many onlookers came out to watch the firefighters’ progress.

“It’s too bad,” said Bill Cole, a retiree who went downtown Tuesday after hearing about the blaze from his daughter, who lives in Massachusetts and read about the fire on Facebook. “This building was a long time coming. I think people took pride in it, because there isn’t too much on Main Street. It’s really a shame.”

On Tuesday, Postmaster Scott Allarie was at the scene of the fire but deferred questions to Doherty. “We’re in crisis mode,” he said.

The post office had operated at 112 Main St. for the last seven years, after replacing an older facility that was difficult for handicapped citizens to enter. The old post office closed in April 2009, after two decades of advocacy by area residents for better access to citizens with disabilities.

 

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker