AUGUSTA — Michael Murphy didn’t think, he just acted when he heard someone screaming that there was a man in a burning apartment house on Pleasant Street Sunday morning.

“I punched out the screen and heard the gentleman screaming for help,” Murphy said. “He thought he was going to die.”

Murphy, who was on his way to work at Plummer’s Funeral Home, two doors from the fire, had seen smoke coming from the building and saw a woman on the front lawn, yelling that there was someone still inside.

The window was open, so Murphy grabbed a folding chair off the front porch and passed it through.

“A hand came out of the smoke, and I put the put chair in his hand and pulled him out,” Murphy said. “I think I did what anyone would have done. Everyone’s out, they’re safe, and that’s what matters.”

John Murray, 62, was taken to Maine Medical Center, Portland, with burns and smoke inhalation, according to Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette. No information about Murray’s condition was available from the hospital

Fourteen other residents were homeless in the fire, which heavily damaged the building at 26 Pleasant St.

Audette said firefighters found Murray sitting outside when they arrived. He was taken by ambulance to Maine Medical Center in Portland.

“(Murray) was pretty significantly injured,” Audette said. “The smoke inhalation was much worse than the burns.”

Murphy said he saw burns on the man’s arms and realized he had been in thick, black smoke for some time.

Fellow tenants said Murray is a Vietnam veteran who had lived in a first floor apartment for about six years. They said Murray was vision-impaired, which might have been a factor in his getting out of the building. They also said the fire appeared to have originated in his unit.

Later, Investigator Ken MacMaster, of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said the fire started in Murray’s apartment and was cooking-related. It is classified as accidental.

“But for Mike Murphy’s actions, this would have been a fatality,” MacMaster said.

Other tenants had notified each other of the fire, and the smoke alarms were functioning.

“Because of the proximity of Hartford (fire) station, we were here in about a minute, and the firefighters did a fantastic job,” Audette said. Hartford fire station is on Water Street, about half a mile away.

Carmelene and Lloyd Pelletier Sr. stood in the rain with fellow tenants watching firefighters walk to and from the front door of the building and listening to the sounds of the fire engines, sometimes punctuated by occasional breaking glass.

Windows and screens were scattered outside the three-story wood frame building.

The eight-unit building was fully occupied, said Michelle Dufour, speaking on behalf of Ryan Chamberland, the owner. City records show the building is owned by C&R Chamberland & Son LLC, and bought by the Chamberland family in 2001. The building was turned back over to the owner late Sunday afternoon after the fire investigation was completed.

Audette said the American Red Cross was offering assistance to the displaced tenants, who were encouraged to seek shelter at South Parish Congregational Church, a block away.

However, most remained outside on Pleasant Street, hoping to learn that their pets were safe. Augusta Fire Department Battalion Chief John Bennett said later that it appeared all but one of the cats survived.

Carmelene Pelletier waited for word about her 5-year-old cat, Spaz.

“I’m not going anywhere ’til I know she’s safe,” she said, wrapped in a blanket a next-door neighbor brought out and with her husband’s arm around her.

Another tenant sought news of his caged rabbit and his two Himalayan cats.

And Michael Smith hurried home to the scene after Pelletier called him at his workplace to say the building was on fire.

“I’ve been here nine years,” he said.

Dean Mallett, who escaped his third floor apartment via the window onto the fire escape, called his boss to to say he wouldn’t be there for his scheduled night shift.

“I came out in a cloud of smoke,” he said.

Audette said the fire, which was reported about 9:30 a.m., was under control in about 45 minutes, and he estimated the building, which dates from 1827 according to city records, sustained about $100,000 in damage.

“It was pretty hectic; it’s a large building,” Audette said about the search to ensure that all the tenants had escaped the building. “It’s a Sunday on a holiday weekend and a lot of people were still sleeping.”

A number of area fire departments assisted Augusta, including Chelsea, Gardiner, Hallowell, Togus and Winthrop.

Betty Adams — 621-5631
[email protected]

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