WATERVILLE — As fire raged through their Western Avenue apartment building Tuesday, Hilary Martin and Bill Layman held onto each other, praying their two cats and two pet rats would be rescued.

Martin was weeping, but tears turned to joy as firefighters emerged from the building with a three-tiered cage bearing Templeton, a dark furry rat, and Pinkerton, a white one.

Soon, firefighters came out carrying Malcolm, 6, and Lenore, 2 — both mackerel tabby cats.

“We’re really relieved,” Martin said, stroking the animals and smiling.

Around 4 p.m., the couple was in their first-floor apartment at 19 Western Ave. when people started pounding on their door.

“I just got home from work and we heard upstairs people running down and outside,” Martin said. “Someone banged on our door and told us to get out. The cats ran and hid and we didn’t have time to find them. We could see flames coming from the second floor.”

The couple, both 27, said they had lived there only a few months.

Fire Chief David LaFountain said at the scene that about 35 firefighters from Waterville, Winslow and Oakland were fighting the fire at the large two-and-a-half story apartment building at the corner of Western Avenue and Western Court.

Police blocked off Western Avenue at Elm Street as dozens of spectators lined lawns and sidewalks to watch. Flames tore through the second floor of the building, spilling out of windows and radiating heat across Western Avenue.

A woman who asked not to be identified said friends helped her rescue her two cats and a dog from her second floor apartment.

LaFountain said the fire is believed to have started in a vacant second-floor apartment facing Western Avenue.

“That’s where all the heavy smoke was and that’s where the heavy, heavy fire was,” he said.

The cause of the fire wasn’t known by investigators Tuesday evening. Firefighters were still battling the fire after 5 p.m.

Tenants said there are four apartments in the building — two on the first floor and two on the second. The top floor has two unfinished rooms that are not occupied, they said.

It was unclear who owns the apartment building, but a neighbor said Keystone Management formerly owned it.

Meanwhile, Layman and Martin said they planned to either stay with a friend on nearby Pleasant Street Tuesday night or with Layman’s father, who lives in Augusta.

Fairfield firefighters stood by at the Waterville fire station as crews worked at the scene, according to LaFountain. Delta ambulance were stationed on Western Avenue.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

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