Investigators trying to determine what sparked last week’s fire that badly damaged four Water Street buildings in Gardiner are still hoping to speak to four people who reportedly lived there.

Sgt. Kenneth Grimes, of the Office of the State Fire Marshal, said Wednesday investigators haven’t been able to determine what caused the fire because of the extensive damage done to the building at 235 Water St., where the fire started. Grimes said the investigation will be “witness-driven,” which makes finding the four missing tenants particularly urgent. The missing tenants, all of whom lived in apartments at 235 Water St., include Daren Jones of apartment 7; Lisa Moore, apartment 10; Kerry Davis, apartment 11 and Sean Smith, apartment 12.

“For whatever reason, they either don’t know we’re looking to talk with them or they haven’t contacted us,” Grimes said. “We want to speak to as many people who have direct, firsthand information.”

The fire that broke out around 4:30 p.m. on July 16 damaged four buildings, including Gerard’s Pizza, and injured four people, including three firefighters who were hit by bricks when a building partially collapsed. About 100 firefighters from communities throughout the area helped fight the blaze.

The fire left little physical evidence to help investigators determine a cause, Grimes said.

“Fire by its very nature destroys what we’re able to look at, which is what we use to determine a cause and origin,” he said.

Speculation has circulated widely on social media that the fire was a result of a methamphetamine laboratory accident. Grimes said nothing in the investigation thus far has either supported or refuted that belief. Investigators haven’t determined how the fire started or whether the cause included a human element.

“We’re looking at all possible reasons for the fire,” Grimes said. “It doesn’t mean that holds any more weight than anything else. It just means we haven’t eliminated it yet.”

Witnesses have reported seeing Jones and Moore since the fire. Investigators initially were concerned that Davis and Smith, for whom there have been no reported sightings, might still be in the building, but Grimes said investigators have sifted through the debris from the building without discovering any body parts.

“We’re confident they are not in the building,” Grimes said.

Grimes said the fire started on the third floor near the back of the building. He declined to say whether investigators have identified the apartment in which the fire started or whether they have talked to that apartment’s tenant.

“We have talked to the occupant who first reported smoke,” Grimes said.

Troy Bowen, who lived in apartment 6 of 235 Water St., said the day after the fire that he was the first person to see the smoke and report the fire. Bowen said he tried to help people out of the building before getting out himself. He said he spent the night at MaineGeneral Medical Center being treated for smoke inhalation. Bowen was the only resident to suffer injuries in the blaze. The three firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

Pam Alsop, who lived on the second floor of 235 Water St., said in an interview the night of the fire that she was sitting in her living room when the hallway smoke alarm went off. When she went into the hallway, her neighbor’s door was open and smoke was billowing out. She said a male neighbor with a “black smoke ring” around his mouth asked for a fire extinguisher. Grimes said the man Alsop spotted was Bowen, the same man who went to the hospital.

While fire investigators are trying to turn back the clock to determine what sparked the blaze, the city is moving forward with a hope to rebuild.

“Our hope, as a city, is to bring that section of the block back to something that fits the historic street we have,” Mayor Thomas Harnett said. “I can think of nothing worse than having a gaping hole in the downtown.”

Gerard’s Pizza sustained smoke and water damage in the fire. A sign in the window says only that the restaurant will reopen “soon.” Owner Jeff McCormick wrote on Wednesday on the pizza shop’s Facebook page that a cleaning company was at the restaurant and that the process would take at least a couple of days.

“I still cannot promise a reopen date yet,” McCormick wrote, “but I do know we’re getting closer!”

He didn’t reply to an email seeking additional information.

The future of the other buildings depends largely on the owners — Wayne Chamberlain, who owns the 235 Water St. building, and Paul McGuire, who owns the buildings at 247 Water St. Attempts to reach Chamberlain this week were unsuccessful. McGuire, reached via telephone at work this week, said he was unable to talk and asked whether he could call back at another time, which he did not do.

Patrick Wright, the city’s economic and development coordinator, said he has spoken to the building owners. Wright said the owners are working with their insurance companies before deciding how to proceed.

“I’ve offered to work with them in any way, shape or form to help to get their buildings back to a state where they can be occupied,” Wright said.

The buildings are in the flood plain, Wright said. If they are destroyed, any replacement building would have to be located above the base flood elevation, which Wright said would be economically challenging

“It would be possible,” Wright said. “The question is whether it would be practical.”

A structural engineer has determined that the building at 235 Water St., which is the most badly damaged, is structurally sound and could be rebuilt. The renovations might qualify for historic preservation tax credits, which would make reconstruction a more appealing option. Wright said there could be “significant advantages,” in terms of cost, to repairing the existing buildings rather than tearing them down and starting over.

“The economics can sometimes work with these tax credits,” Wright said. “That makes me hopeful.”

As the owners weigh their options, Water Street is beginning to return to normal, Harnett said.

“It’s kind of a new normal,” he said.

He said Water Street has been busy with traffic and pedestrians since the fire, which he has found heartening. People have returned to shopping and eating at the businesses that line the street.

“I’m thrilled,” Harnett said.

The fire itself, which drew large crowds to the downtown, ironically had a positive effect on several businesses on the street. The Gardiner Food Co-Op became a gathering place, and merchants at the other end of the street said they were “surprisingly busy,” Harnett said.

“A couple of them told me that last Friday was their busiest Friday ever,” he said.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4


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