GARDINER — Two tenants remained unaccounted for Friday as investigators continued to probe a destructive downtown fire that swept across four buildings a day earlier, destroying apartments and businesses.

Even so, Sgt. Kenneth Grimes of the Office of the State Fire Marshal said later Friday that he was “as confident as I can be for examining the entire building” that no one had died in the fire after a search did not turn up human remains.

Meanwhile, an excavator was brought in to dismantle parts of the building where the fire started, 235 Water St., after officials said the blaze caused a “pancake” effect when the roof collapsed and pushed down the building’s multiple floors.

The fire, which was reported about 4:20 p.m. Thursday, injured four people — a tenant who suffered smoke inhalation and three firefighters who were hit by falling bricks — and left 12 people homeless. About 100 firefighters responded from several neighboring communities.

State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said Friday that two people — Sean Smith and Kerry Davis — have not been seen since the fire and that three other tenants had been spotted since the fire but had not yet contacted authorities. Thomas said investigators will put the work of finding out what caused the fire on hold until they have accounted for all the victims, particularly Smith and Davis, who are listed as tenants of 235 Water St. Davis lived in apartment 11 and Smith in apartment 12.

“My office has got two individuals listed as occupants of that building who are unaccounted for,” Thomas said Friday. “We’re in the process of trying to determine where they might be.”

As the excavator pulled down parts of the building Friday to stabilize it, a discovery momentarily set off incorrect reports that a human body had been found in the rubble. Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Friday afternoon that investigators had found human remains inside the building. Grimes said it appeared to be human body parts from a distance.

But Grimes said later Friday that the State Medical Examiner’s Office determined the “body parts” — a foot, ankle and skulls — were actually just Halloween decorations.

Thomas said investigators have yet to speak to three other people — Darren Jones, apartment 7; Robert Gagnon, apartment 8; and Lisa Moore, apartment 10 — but each of them has been seen since the fire.

“Two of the five are what I would consider totally unaccounted for,” Thomas said at a news conference Friday. “Three of the others, we’ve heard through different contacts that they are OK, that they’ve been out and about; but my agency has not talked to them. We need to do that.”

The fire started in one of the third-floor apartments, but investigators have not determined how it started, Thomas said.

“Our focus right now is accounting for everybody that we should have in that building,” he said.

He asked that the five people who lived the buildings in the area of 235 Water St., including Smith and Davis, to contact authorities at 624-7076 so they can be identified and possibly provide information about the fire.

Water Street remained blocked off to traffic for much of the day Friday, but dozens of people turned out on the sidewalk opposite the burned out buildings to take stock of the destruction. Officials said the street would remained closed until officials can assure the buildings are safe from collapse.

“We have no idea what is happening,” said Jeff Cote, who has been the property manager of 235 Water St. for the past eight years. “All we’re doing is trying to place some of these people in my other open apartments.”

Cote helped Garreth Brown salvage equipment from the building’s first floor. After renting the space and getting set up over the past three months, Brown had opened his shop, Chivalry Ink Tattoo Studio, on Thursday just a few hours before the fire. He had invested at least $10,000 into the business, he said, but little of it was salvageable.

“I don’t have insurance, so I pretty much just lost everything,” Brown said. “I’m 25 years old and I just lost my life.”

‘IT WAS DARK’

Three firefighters were injured during the fire, and a Winthrop ladder truck was damaged, when the roof collapsed at 235 Water St., sending a cascade of bricks to the ground. The firefighters, two from West Gardiner and one from Pittston, were taken to MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, where they were treated and released.

Troy Bowen, who lived in apartment 6 of 235 Water St., was taken to the same hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. Bowen was kept overnight at the hospital as a precaution.

“I was coughing up black stuff all night long,” Bowen said Friday as he surveyed the building’s damage.

Bowen, who has no renter’s insurance, is working with the American Red Cross to replace his clothes and find a place to live. “A couple of people donated some money so I could get some clothes,” he said. “This is all I’ve got.”

Bowen said nothing appeared amiss when he returned home Thursday afternoon. He said he climbed the stairs to his apartment, went in through the door, tripped and fell.

“When I looked up, it was dark,” Bowen said. “All I saw was a pin of the light I turned on.”

Bowen thought for a moment his light was broken, but then he smelled smoke and felt heat from his apartment, where investigators think the fire might have started.

“I got out and I yelled out, ‘Fire! Fire! Get out!'” Bowen recalled.

Bowen said he tried to save one of his neighbor’s cats but couldn’t. Thursday night, Pam Alsop, who lived on the second floor of 235 Water St., said she went into the hallway and saw her neighbor’s door was open and smoke was billowing out. Alsop said a male neighbor — it’s unclear whether it was Bowen she saw— had a “black smoke ring” around his mouth and asked for a fire extinguisher. Alsop said she called for her cat, but she had to leave it behind.

“I made sure people got out,” Bowen said Friday morning, his voice choking with emotion. “I wish I could have saved her cat.”

WAIT AND SEE

Tom Linscott, manager of Gerard’s Pizza, was on a break eating his supper Thursday when he heard commotion outside through the open doors. His pizza shop is right next to 235 Water St.

“Someone said get the Fire Department down here ASAP,” Linscott said.

He went outside and saw smoke coming from the front of the building. Linscott rushed to the back, where he saw smoke and flames.

“It made me think that this was much more serious than something on the stove,” Linscott said. “That’s when I decided we needed to get everyone out of the building. I told everyone to leave and turned off the gas.”

Linscott said he was concerned about fire and smoke spreading through the attic space above the pizza shop, but the fire was blocked by a firewall between the two buildings, according to Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson. There was no wall on the opposite side of the building, which allowed the flames to spread west across three clapboard buildings.

Nelson said 235 Water St. did not have a sprinkler system, and wasn’t required to, but said he said the fire probably would have been stymied or prevented if it had had one.

Linscott said the building that houses the pizza shop, which is insured, sustained some smoke and water damage. “Other than that, we’re OK,” he said.

Linscott was unsure when the restaurant would re-open. The same was true of businesses throughout that section of Water Street. Lisa Liberatore, of Lisa’s Legit Burritos, which is across the street, said she hoped to be open soon, depending on how fast crews could stabilize the remaining structure at 235 Water St.

“It’s a wait-and-see game,” Liberatore said. “We just need to make sure everyone stays safe.”

Thomas said the building must be made safe not only for the public walking around outside, but also for investigators going in to search the debris and look for what caused the fire. Construction crews on Friday were piling loads of dirt to make an elevated platform for heavy equipment to reach the top floors of the 235 Water St. building.

“Right now, on the back side, the roof is collapsed,” Thomas said. “The roof is where the fourth floor should be. The fourth floor is where the third floor should be. We’ve really got a pancake arrangement.”

Thomas said crews would try to save as much of the building as possible so that it might be rebuilt.

REBUILDING EFFORTS

The fire on Thursday struck at the heart of downtown Gardiner, both literally and figuratively.

City officials, business owners and residents have been carrying out plans for revitalizing the downtown, offering reduced rents, among other incentives.

The night before the blaze, the City Council approved a liquor license for Gardiner Craft Beer Cellar, a beer store planned to open at 339 Water St. in late August, according to the business’s application. The business received a $35,000 forgivable loan and a $10,000 grant from the Gardiner Growth Initiative, a downtown business incentives program.

The incentives program, which also helped bring Frosty’s Donuts and Emery’s Meat & Produce to Gardiner over the last two years, is a collaboration among Gardiner Main Street, The Bank of Maine, the Gardiner Board of Trade and the city. Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center, operating from a historic 1864 theater at 280 Water St., has been upgrading its facilities continually as it offers regular arts programming.

As firefighters sprayed tons of water to put out Thursday’s fire, owners of businesses and buildings downtown lamented its effect even as they remained grateful that it appeared no one was seriously hurt.

Now the community is taking stock of what it has lost and is preparing to rebuild, said Mayor Thomas Harnett, who on Thursday called the fire a “community disaster.”

He said the city is working with the American Red Cross, the state of Maine and the United Way of Kennebec Valley to help those directly affected by the blaze. He said the fire was a “traumatic event,” most notably for those whose homes and businesses were lost, but also for the community, which has lost part of its history.

“We’re currently figuring out what the needs are and the best way to meet those needs,” Harnett said. “We ask our community and surrounding communities, once Gardiner is back open for business, to please come downtown and support our local merchants, our restaurants, our shops, because they depend on you for their economic survival.”

Liberatore, who serves on the board of the Gardiner Main Street Program, has launched one of at least three fundraisers. She said businesses owners on the street always have supported each other. This time will be no different.

“We rally for each other. It’s what we do,” Liberatore said. “We take care of each other on a daily basis. We need each other. I can’t survive down here without the other businesses.”

Staff writer Betty Adams contributed to this report.

 

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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