WATERVILLE — Four adults and three children are alive today because smoke detectors in their building alerted them early Monday to escape a fire that ultimately left them homeless.

The fire, reported at 12:03 a.m., appears to have started in the first-floor laundry room of the two-story, two-apartment building in the city’s South End, according to fire Lt. John Gromek, who investigated the fire.

“It was an accidental fire,” Gromek said.

Building owner Nicholas White, 25, lived on the first floor with his wife, Deidre, also 25, and their three girls, Amber, 6, Mercedes, 3, and Evangeline, 1. Deidre’s sister, Rachel Reid, 17, and her husband, Jacob, 20, lived upstairs. All were able to escape the fire, but the Whites lost two pet angora rabbits. The family had used their fur for spinning wool for hats and other items, Nicholas White said.

“They’re like puppies; they’re just the sweetest things,” he said.

Nicholas White had just started dozing off around midnight when he heard smoke detector alarms going off in the 110-year-old house at 8 King St., he said. He immediately scrambled to collect the children, grabbing Mercedes first, and alerting his in-laws upstairs, which felt like an oven, he said.

“I ran through the black smoke and gathered the baby (Evangeline) and handed her to my sister-in-law. My wife was about to go through the fire to the bathroom, to get our 6-year-old. We didn’t know she was already outside.”

Amber had learned in school that if her house was ever on fire, she should run out immediately — and that’s what she did, he said.

Functioning smoke detectors saved their lives, according to Gromek. Nicholas White agreed, but added that firefighters also are life-savers.

“I owe it to smoke alarms and I owe it to the firemen who visited public school with my first-grader, telling them to run out,” he said. “The Fire Department reacted so quickly last night. We were in our underwear in the snow. We had gotten in our Subaru to keep warm, but the keys were in the house. We were sitting there with no shoes. The firemen came so quickly and gave us blankets and started to put out the fire.”

About 40 firefighters from Waterville and Winslow battled the fire in frigid temperatures, finishing their work at 4:16 a.m.

Gromek inspected the home Monday afternoon with Stu Jacobs, an investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Gromek said the fire appears to have started in or near a clothes dryer. An investigator for the family’s insurance company also will review the scene, he said.

Fire Chief David LaFountain, said the insurance company will decide if the house is a total loss.

“From what I’ve seen, I can’t imagine a whole lot being salvaged,” he said.

Nicholas White said the couple had bought the clothes dryer new in 2007, two years before they moved to King Street.

At the wood-frame, vinyl-sided house Monday afternoon, windows were gone from the back side of the home where the laundry room is, and the contents of the house appeared black and charred. Houses in that area of King Street in the South End are about 20 feet apart.

Nicholas White said his family stayed with in-laws Sunday night in Unity but would be staying in a hotel Monday night. The American Red Cross is helping the families, and donations are being accepted at Selah Tea Cafe on Main Street, as well as at the family’s church, Lighthouse Christian Fellowship on High Street in Oakland, according to Nicholas White.

LaFountain said cold temperatures posed a problem for firefighters while they worked.

“We have to make sure we don’t shut nozzles down all the way. They freeze up,” he said.

Waterville police closed the street off to traffic and Fairfield firefighters covered the Waterville fire station, he said.

LaFountain reminded people to make sure to have their appliances and heating sources checked.

“If burning oil, make sure you maintain your furnace properly,” he said. “People should make sure they’ve been checked and that they’re running well.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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