WATERVILLE — In a formerly vacant building between Day’s Jewelers and Northern Mattress on Main Street, a group of prisoners anxiously waits on death row.

They’re locked in a cell with letters from loved ones, primitive art hanging on the walls and a nearby warden slumped over in a chair. They have one hour to plan an escape or be executed. The clock is ticking.

That’s the scenario a group of co-workers from the Waterville Opera House recently found themselves in on their first visit to Mainely Escapes — central Maine’s first escape room, a new gaming trend that presents participants with a series of mind games and puzzles they must solve in order to escape a locked room.

According to the online Escape Room Directory, there are more than 300 escape rooms across the country. It lists five in Maine. Another pair of businessmen said they are looking into opening a similar business in Augusta.

Mainely Escapes, which is not listed in the directory, opened in May at 90 Main St. and is Waterville’s first. Co-owners Adam Hendsbee and Bill Tiner got the idea after visiting one in Portland and wanted to bring the challenge to central Maine.

The Augusta businessmen, Ken Jamison and Corey Ballew, who have started a Kickstarter campaign to open EntrapME in Augusta, said they also got their idea after visiting one in Portland as well as Mainely Escapes. They hope to open by the beginning of November at 9 Green St., an office building that once housed Central Maine Power’s offices.

“I was instantly hooked,” said Jamison. “I loved the Waterville one. I thought it was really well thought out.”

Hendsbee said all kind of groups come to the Waterville escape room, from corporate team-builders to summer camps.

“It’s really a mental challenge,” said Hendsbee, 40. “It’s something people can do as a family or as a group, and something they can do and laugh. A lot of times people come out laughing so hard; they come out really energized.”

Joel and Holly Stoneton, who visited Mainely Escapes with their family in a session that followed the Opera House group, agreed after recently completing the challenge in about 40 minutes — they are first group to finish without being given any clues.

“This was my first time and it was great,” said Holly Stoneton, of Winthrop. “My advice would be to go with people you get along with. But it’s also good to have different skill sets.”

On a recent afternoon, the group of seven co-workers from the Opera House met at Mainely Escapes with varied expectations.

Emily Cates, of Winslow, said she was motivated by the “fake stress and anxiety” on her second-ever visit to an escape room.

“If you get into it, it’s really fun,” said Cates, 17.

For $20 a person, the group of seven friends willingly allowed Tiner to lead them into a room the size of a large closet, close the prison-bar door and lock them in. They even asked to have the lights off so the challenge would be scarier.

“This is it,” said Tiner, who is a locksmith in his day job at Access Lock Service. “You’re on death row and you have to get out.”

Within seconds the group began overturning furniture, pulling papers off the wall, ripping open packages of food and unrolling rolls of toilet paper in a frantic effort to find clues that could help them escape.

Clues to unlock the puzzles are hidden around the room, but it’s not clear what the clues are. It’s possible a prisoner could be looking at a clue but not realize it. The scenario doesn’t change for each new group, but Tiner and Hendsbee have plans to build another room and change the scenarios.

After about 20 minutes — and a clue from Hendsbee and Tiner, who watched the escape unfold from a video monitor in an adjacent room — they broke out of the cell. But the challenge wasn’t over.

Instead, the group found themselves in the prison warden’s office, decorated with police and military badges, a bulletin board of police memos and three sturdy locks on the door, keeping them in.

They pulled up a rug on the floor, ripped open desk drawers and riffled through coffee cans looking for words, numbers and hidden items that would give away the combinations.

With just about 10 minutes to go before the one hour mark, shrieks of excitement came ringing out from the warden’s office, the final lock was broken open and the prisoners came rushing out.

“It was harder than I expected,” said Jada Boggs, 17, of Clinton, who before the challenge had expected to escape in 10 minutes. “I expected it to be smooth sailing, but honestly, it was kind of nerve-racking.”

Josh Veilleux, who emerged from the warden’s office wearing a bright orange jumpsuit he found in the cell and donned amidst the excitement, was smiling from ear to ear after the escape.

“I totally (would do one again)” said Veilleux, 18, of Winslow. “I can see myself becoming an escape junkie.”

Meanwhile, the prison cell and the warden’s office looked as though a tornado had whipped through them.

“That’s part of the fun,” said Cody Schmidt, who is from Denver. “I would pay $20 to throw furniture and open ramen and dump it on the floor.”

As the group walked away laughing, Hendsbee and Tiner got to work cleaning up the cell, redressing the mannequin of a prisoner and replacing the ramen noodles.

Another group of prisoners was coming to be locked up soon.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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