BIDDEFORD — A fire set in a downtown apartment building early Thursday is now being investigated as a homicide as well as an arson after one of two men who were pulled unconscious from the burning building died Friday.

Michael Moore, 23, died at Maine Medical Center late Friday afternoon.

Investigators on Friday continued to hunt for the person who set fire to a rear stairwell of the building at 35 Main St., killing Moore, critically injuring his roommate, James Ford, 21, and displacing 25 residents.

Investigators would not say if they have any leads on a suspect in the fire. Ford remains in critical condition at Maine Medical Center but is expected to survive.

Moore’s death could have legal implications, including criminal charges, for the building’s owner and the property manager. Sgt. Joel Davis of the State Fire Marshal’s Office said there appeared to be serious safety code violations in the rear section of the building, which was heavily damaged. The front section of the building, containing 11 of its 14 units, is brick and was separated from the wooden rear section by a wall. It sustained little damage.

Investigators found no working smoke detectors in the apartment where Moore and Ford lived, Davis said. The two men were sleeping when the fire broke out, and didn’t wake up even though their apartment had filled with smoke.

“If there was (a detector), then it wasn’t operating,” Davis said. “The only alarm from the building that went off was the fire alarm, and that had to be pulled by the police officer” who was first to arrive, he said.

Fire officials also said there were no fire escapes leading from the finished attic where both men slept or elsewhere in the rear section, although there were fire escapes in the front section. Firefighters had to help a family living in the other second-floor apartment escape through a second-story window.

“If people are (escaping) out of windows, usually that means they didn’t have a secondary means of egress,” Davis said.

The city’s code enforcement division is conducting a complete inspection and will deliver its report to Davis by Monday, he said. A city worker said a reporter could not examine city information on 35 Main St. because the fire marshal’s office has made it part of the investigation.

State law requires smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in all rental units. The law also says apartment building owners must conduct routine maintenance on the devices. The law requires carbon monoxide detectors in each bedroom or at least in hallways that lead to bedrooms. It recommends the detectors be no more than 15 feet from bedroom doors.

Property owners who meet these requirements can’t be found in violation of that section of the law as long as they inspected the detectors after installation and before each new tenant moves in.

The building is owned by Nielsen Clark of Englewood, Florida, who does not have a listed telephone number and could not be reached for comment.

Raymond Herrick, the property manager who lives in the front portion of the building, said he oversaw the installation of smoke detectors, which were connected to the building’s electrical system and had battery backup. There were detectors in each unit as required, but tenants sometimes disconnected them, he said.

Mayor Alan Casavant said the injuries are a sobering reminder of why meeting safety codes is essential. He said it is a problem that afflicts many cities with older housing stock.

“It’s important cities like Biddeford do conduct more regular inspections to make sure they are up to code and safe for the people who live there,” Casavant said. “Nobody thinks it will happen to them.”

Biddeford has an eight-person code enforcement department, but does not regularly inspect each of the hundreds of units of rental housing in the city. The city has considered creating a systematic inspection program, but hasn’t done so because of the cost of adding staff and resistance from landlords who worry about additional fees, he said.

Fire Department Lt. Eric Wheeler said police and firefighters look for code violations when they are called to apartment buildings.

“If we see a building that only has one means of egress, we report that to our superiors and code enforcement,” he said.

For now, investigators are focused on finding whoever set the fire. The state medical examiner will conduct an autopsy and determine the cause and manner of death, although it appears clear it was smoke inhalation, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Four fire marshal’s investigators and four Maine State Police detectives continued to interview tenants and other witnesses Friday. Many of the tenants, assisted by the American Red Cross, the city and area churches, are being put up in local motels and have had some of their clothing replaced.

The building remains off limits. Davis said it is a crime scene and won’t be released back to the owner until investigators complete their interviews and examination of the property.

The fire broke out about 3:45 a.m. and was called in by a passerby. The first emergency worker to arrive was a police officer who pulled the fire alarm. The first lever didn’t trigger the alarm so he pulled another, which activated loud bells that roused many of the residents.

Arson investigators determined the fire was intentionally set in the stairwell that leads to the second floor of the rear portion of the building. The stairwell acted as a chimney, funneling flames, heat and smoke up into the second floor. From there, the smoke rose into the finished attic where Moore and Ford were sleeping.

When firefighters arrived, flames were shooting from the rear portion of the building. They helped a couple and their child escape through a second-floor window. A mother, her three children – ages 5,6 and 13 – her boyfriend and another man who were staying on the first floor escaped on their own. Six people were treated and released from Southern Maine Health Care on Thursday.

Firefighters doused the flames in the stairwell so they could get to the second floor to search for tenants, Fire Chief Joseph Warren said Thursday. Feeling their way through thick smoke, firefighters found Ford and Moore. They brought both men on stretchers down through the stairwell where the fire had been set, according to witnesses.

Moore and Ford weren’t seriously burned, but did suffer severe smoke inhalation, Davis said. Tests will determine the carbon monoxide levels in their blood, he said.

The fire caused extensive damage to the three-story wood-frame section at the rear of the mostly brick building across from the Pepperell Mill complex. The mixed residential and commercial building has a street-level storefront and is next door to One Stop Moving & Storage.

The building was built in 1900, according to the Biddeford Assessor’s database.

On Friday, the building was posted against occupancy.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @Mainehenchman

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