GARDINER — Al Nelson knew the fire that broke out near midnight Feb. 4 was going to be different when he heard Lt. Josh Johnson requesting a school bus on the radio.

The dispatcher had alerted Gardiner’s fire chief at home that smoke and fire were showing at 215 Highland Ave., and Nelson was on his way, trying to envision which property that was, when he heard the request come on the radio.

Then it was clear. Highland Terrace, a 28-unit senior housing complex tucked into a residential neighborhood at the north end of the city, was on fire and its 30 residents were being evacuated into the bitterly cold midwinter night.

It was the first of three serious fires to hit Gardiner in 2015. Five months later, fire would damage several buildings on Water Street, one beyond repair; and just before Thanksgiving, even as the remains of the Water Street building were being demolished, fire destroyed a single-family home on Old Brunswick Road.

Jon Stonier, the operations director at School Administrative District 11, brought the school bus that night, maneuvering it into place around the fire hoses that stretched across the road.

“Everyone was clinging to the few things that were important to them,” Stonier said.

He had thought he would be on hand to provide a warm space for the evacuated residents. As it happened, they were taken into homes and into a meeting room in a facility across Highland Avenue. Over the course of the long night, several people did take shelter on the bus to warm up.

The following day, after the school district’s buses had been dispatched on their rounds, he returned with a bus outfitted to accommodate a wheelchair to take displaced residents to the hotel in Augusta where they would stay until more permanent housing could be secured for them.

“I don’t live that far from Highlands Terrace,” he said, and the residents were a part of the neighborhood. He and his wife would see some of them while they were out walking. “They loved it there.”

“The sadness is really profound,” Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett said. “Here you have people who, in a matter of minutes, lost every material possession, all the things that make up one’s life.”

Among the many things learned that night and in its aftermath, Harnett said, is that people, even those who don’t have much themselves, stepped up to help out those who had nothing.

“Besides the sadness, the other thing I took away from this is how generous people are,” he said. “It was astounding to me (to see) the people who stepped up.”

In the wake of the fire, a GoFundMe campaign was launched to raise money for the fire victims. Through that mechanism and through donations to the American Red Cross and the United Way, people gave about $37,000 to help defray the costs of starting over.

Harnett, who served on the committee that oversaw distributing those funds, said he received advice and guidance from the United Way and an appreciation for organizations like it, the Red Cross and the state Department of Health and Human Services, that help out in times of crisis.

Highland Terrace is one of the properties owned and operated by C.B. Mattson, Inc., a Farmingdale-based company that provides affordable housing to seniors and families across the state. “It was so unforgettable to come on site and see the first responders, and then look down on the ground and see the bare footprints in the snow,” said Todd Mattson, company president.

When the fire was out, the extent of the damage was clear. Fire had destroyed the south wing — the wing closest to Highland Avenue — and had started to eat into the central hallway. The north wing sustained smoke and water damage, rendering it uninhabitable. About two-thirds of the building was lost.

Mattson said he considered not rebuilding. Of all the options to be considered, that was certainly the easiest.

“I was born and grew up in Gardiner. I couldn’t believe the neighborhood outpouring. It was unbelievable,” he said. “It seemed like a waste to walk away from it.”

The company opted to rebuild, and earlier this month, the roof was expected to go on. Ron Lachapelle, administrator and vice president for C.B. Mattson, said the building will occupy the same footprint and have the same number of units. Originally opened in 1986, the building met the fire codes of the time, which did not include sprinklers. To meet current code, sprinklers will be installed throughout, including the 10 units that survived the fire, which also will be refurbished.

“Of the people who lived there, we relocated about 60 percent of them to our other apartments,” Lachapelle said. Others elected to stay in Gardiner and find accommodations with other landlords.

Mattson said maybe some of the residents will return when the building is ready for occupancy.

“We’ve had an inquiry from one of the prior tenants,” Lachapelle said. “She didn’t want to commit to returning, but she wants to see what the building will be like.”

The fire triggered Gardiner’s automatic aid agreements with surrounding towns. In all, fire crews from Augusta, Togus, Farmingdale, Pittston and Randolph, and ambulances from Winthrop Ambulance Service and Delta Ambulance responded.

“There was huge potential for loss of life,” Nelson said. One resident was hospitalized for smoke inhalation and released.

“Just the fact that there was no significant injury or loss of life is pretty amazing,” he said.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.