AUGUSTA — Heather Oltz stood in the rain, her face sheltered by the fur-framed hood on her long coat, looking over the charred pile of timbers on the property that had been her home for almost five years.

Oltz was one of 27 people who lost their homes to a massive fire early Friday morning that ripped through the 18-unit apartment building on Northern Avenue. All but seven of the 23 people there at the time were able to escape without injuries. Some of the others, most of whom were burned as they fled the building, appeared to have been released from the hospital by Saturday morning.

Oltz, 59, was back at the fire scene on Saturday with her son Dereck, hoping to find her two cats.

Small amounts of smoke continued to rise from the north side of the building. The burned-out hulks of seven vehicles that had belonged to the tenants remained in the rear parking lot.

The cats were nowhere to be seen, but her son, with whom she had stayed Friday night, found another cat, which Oltz said belonged a neighbor.

“That’s the cat with the eye that was shot out,” Heather Oltz said as Dereck Oltz cradled the wet gray animal in his arms.

Oltz said she was awakened from sleep early Friday by a crackling sound. “I thought maybe there was a storm outside,” she said. When the noises grew louder, she got up and walked to the kitchen. “I could see orange flames just above the table,” she said “I opened the door to see what it was.”

The smoke drove her back, so she shut her door and began banging on walls, hollering “Fire.”

She grabbed her purse as she fled, thinking her phone was in it. It wasn’t. Her teeth, too, were left behind. Oltz said she tried to return twice, looking for her cats. “Of course, they hid,” she said, trying not to give up hope.

Oltz was worried about her neighbors, especially the ones next door with the 5-year-old and 3-month-old. “I hollered,” she said. “They were out before me.”

Oltz, who works at Maxim’s Laundromat in Augusta, planned to spend Saturday night at the Super 8 Motel, where about 11 rooms were occupied by fire victim families Friday night.

“This was really a nice building,” she said, almost in disbelief at the rubble. “Nobody partied. Everyone kept to themselves. They worked, came home and tended to their families.”

Oltz was one of many tenants who praised the building owner, Yvon Doyon, for his upkeep of the building, the presence of working smoke detectors and the fact the apartments all had doors that opened on both sides of the building.

At the Super 8 Motel on Saturday morning, Scott Cushing, 32, was wearing a navy blue Maine Black Bears shirt and pants that he had bought at Walmart with some of the money distributed by the American Red Cross.

He said he fled the flames in a pair of shorts, sandals, a T-shirt and underwear. Everything else, including his cellphone, was destroyed. “I didn’t grab anything. My wallet, my cell were on the table, but you don’t think to grab it,” he said.

Cushing said he was awakened by hollering. “I went out on the porch and saw smoke coming from the neighbors. They told us all to get across the street,” he said. “Five minutes later, I looked and the whole upstairs was smoking, lots of black thick smoke. Then the wind hit and the whole upstairs was in flames.” Next they struck the middle level, where Cushing had lived. “I was just like, ‘Oh, no,'” Cushing said, covering his face with his hands.

Cushing had moved into his one-bedroom apartment at 36 Northern Ave. in September. He works at a Hannaford supermarket, but he was unable to do so Saturday because the knee braces his doctor prescribed for him were destroyed in the fire. He also helps run the scorers’ table at Cony High School basketball games.

He said he felt lucky that he didn’t own a car, and he was grateful to the Darling’s car dealership, which provided shuttle vans and drivers to transport fire victims.

Cushing and most of the others are hoping to find some response to their longer-term housing needs when they attend a Housing and Resource Fair from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday at Gilbert Elementary School. The forum, coordinated by Augusta Housing, involves multiple agencies, landlords and property management companies and is aimed at rehousing the fire victims quickly.

The United Way of Kennebec Valley, MaineHousing, Augusta Housing, the city of Augusta’s health and welfare office, and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Family Independence and Homeless Providers are expected to be represented at the event.

In the meantime, agencies were sending representatives to the people at the motel, and private individuals were dropping in and offering to help.

“I’d like to help with things that are needed,” said Linda Fortin, owner of a cellphone store in Gardiner. She said she and her husband could help with a number of things, including apartment furnishings.

“What’s needed is to buy everybody enough time to find a place to live,” said Brian Lewis, a longtime resident of the burned building. Lewis said Saturday that area landlords had been calling Doyon to advise him of their vacancies, and that Doyon was hoping to return tenants’ security deposits as rapidly as possible.

Maxine Morton, 71, sat outside the Super 8 Motel, smoking a cigarette and speaking to her son and a nephew, who also had lived in the burned building, as well as her daughter from Vassalboro. Morton, too, was missing a cat.

Morton prided herself on being the oldest tenant as well as the one who had lived in the building the longest — 18 years.

She escaped without injury but with little else. “I went out with a sweater and jacket over my nightgown and bare feet,” she said.

Her oxygen tank and nebulizer were left behind, although she was able to acquire another oxygen tank.

“I lost my glasses in the fire, my cat, my bird, all my pictures of my mom and dad,” Morton said. However, her daughter, Mona Allen, surprised her Saturday morning by bringing copies of some of those photos, which she had scanned a few years ago.

Morton’s son John White marveled at the fact that everyone got out alive, crediting it to Doyon’s care of the building.

Momeine Bynum said that when the fire occurred, he grabbed his 6-year-old daughter Locasia from her bed and ran from the building. “No shoes, no nothing. Everything’s gone except for our lives,” he said. He said he was hoping to get assistance from Augusta Housing for himself and his daughter. Bynum and his daughter spent Friday night with friends, saving their time at the motel for later, but stopping in there to see their neighbors and friends.

The Augusta Community Warming Center at 44 Front St. opened a week early to help provide daytime shelter for the displaced tenants, and it was also serving as a hub for some donated items.

Center Director Deidrah Stanchfield said Saturday some items have been donated specifically for the fire victims. If they’re not needed, then they will go into the general donation collection, which is available to everyone.

Those who wish to assist the fire victims also can call the United Valley Branch of the American Red Cross at 874-1192.

Investigators with the Office of State Fire Marshal were expected to continue to try to determine the cause of the blaze. A news release from the Maine Department of Public Safety said they intended to interview all the building’s residents.

Sgt. Ken Grimes, of the fire marshal’s office, was unavailable by phone on Saturday.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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