GARDINER — Fire officials say a building badly damaged by fire last week is no longer a threat to the public.

Fire Chief Al Nelson said Sunday that the building at 235 Water St. was taken down partially Friday to prevent debris from falling. The move allowed officials to reopen Water Street by Saturday morning.

“At this point, as far as the building, it’s up to the owner and the insurance company,” Nelson said, adding that Gardiner Main Street Program and state historical officials also are weighing in. “They want to save the historical features of the building.”

State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said Friday that his office was trying to contact five people who reportedly lived in the building but had yet to be interviewed by investigators. Thomas said three of those people — Darren Jones, Robert Gagnon and Lisa Moore, who lived in apartments 7, 8, and 10, respectively — have been spotted in the community since the fire.

However, Thomas said Friday, there had been no contact with two other residents — Kerry Davis, of apartment 11, and Sean Smith, apartment 12 — leading initially to fears that one or both might have been buried under rubble in the building.

Nelson said Sunday that he didn’t know whether fire investigators had talked to any of the missing residents, but he said a search of the building turned up no human remains.

Attempts to reach Thomas on Sunday were unsuccessful.

“Never say never,” Nelson said, “but we are reasonably sure, at this point, that there’s no one left in the building.”

The fire, which broke out just before 4:30 p.m. Thursday, destroyed the brick building and three others attached to it. Twelve people were left homeless and four people were injured. A man who lived in the building at 235 Water St. was treated overnight at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta for smoke inhalation, and three fighters were treated and released after treatment of minor injuries suffered when bricks from the 235 Water St. building fell on them as they fought the fire.

Nelson said Sunday he had talked to the fire chiefs in West Gardiner and Pittston, where the injured men volunteer, and he hoped to reach the firefighters themselves Monday.

“They were, in the grand scheme of things, minor injuries, but any injury is one too many,” Nelson said.

Nelson said there had been no indication that the weakened section of the building was ready to collapse.

“Sometimes it does happen and you just don’t see it coming,” he said.

The fire started in one of the third-floor apartments, but investigators have not determined how it started, because much of Friday was spent searching the debris for the missing residents. 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. Sgt. Kenneth Grimes of the State Fire Marshal’s Office 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.

Water Street, the heart of the downtown area, was closed to foot and vehicle traffic throughout the day on Friday as crews worked to secure the building. Much of the front of the building remains intact, but the excavator left a large, U-shaped hole in the back of the building.

Nelson said a structural engineer was hired to oversee the stabilization process.

“He really provided guidance about what we needed to take down and what could stay,” Nelson said. “He said the building was safe to stay right where it is.”

Nelson said crews still have to clean up debris in the back of the building and finish cleaning out the building.

“In his opinion, the front of the building is safe,” Nelson said of the engineer.

The city has been hit with two large fires in the span of five months. A fire in February at 215 Highland Ave., destroyed a 28-unit senior apartment building, leaving more than 30 people without a home. That fire and the one that hit Friday show the effect of mutual-aid agreements among neighboring communities. About 100 firefighters from several surrounding towns helped Gardiner crews battle the blaze.

“We show up with four people,” Nelson said. “Without help from those other communities, I think this has a whole different ending.”

Nelson said he has been impressed by the response of city officials, including Mayor Thomas Harnett and City Manager Scott Morelli, at both the Highland Avenue and Water Street fires.

“It was incredible support from the city staff,” Nelson said.

That response has echoed in the community itself, which, within hours of the fire, already was beginning relief efforts to help those who lost homes and businesses.

“The community as a whole, the support has been absolutely amazing,” Nelson said. “I so deeply appreciate how much support the community has given not only to us and the fire departments in the surrounding mutual-aid communities, but the businesses and people that were affected. There’s just been a great unity. It goes to show it really is a great community. It’s a great place to live.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4


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