A couple who recently moved to Portland from New York City have bought the Noyes Street property in Portland that was the site of Maine’s deadliest fire in four decades.

Mindy Fox and Stephen Hoffman, who live in an apartment on Coyle Street, plan to build a new duplex at 20-24 Noyes St. They will live in one unit and rent the other on a long-term basis. They said they are well aware of the property’s history and hope to find an appropriate way to memorialize the six young people killed in the 2014 tragedy.

Hoffman said he has encountered people who have stopped by to pay their respects and offer mementos of the deceased.

“We definitely thought about the significance of that property to the greater community and particularly the families and the people who lost their friends and loved ones,” Hoffman said. “We wanted to make sure that how we approach this would honor those feelings.”

An intense fire tore through the duplex at 20 Noyes St. in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2014, where a group of young people were sleeping after celebrating Halloween. Officials said the fire was caused by improperly discarded smoking materials placed in a plastic receptacle that melted and ignited the front porch.

A fire investigator walks the scene on the day of the blaze, which officials said was caused by smoking materials that were improperly discarded on a porch.

‘EXTREMELY HESITANT’ AT FIRST

Officials said the fire spread quickly throughout the apartment building through the front door, which was engulfed in flames. A lack of functioning smoke detectors contributed to the deaths of the six: Ashley Thomas, 29, David Bragdon Jr., 27, Maelisha Jackson, 23, Christopher Conlee, 25, Nicole “Nikki” Finlay, 26, and Steven Summers, 29, who survived the fire but later died of his burns.

The landlord, Gregory Nisbet, was charged with six counts of manslaughter stemming from his management of the property. He was acquitted of those charges, but found guilty of a fire code violation for not having a second means of escape for tenants in a third-floor bedroom.

Gregory Nisbet, landlord of the Noyes Street duplex that burned in 2014, attends his trial. He sold the property in May to a couple who recently moved to Portland from New York.

That conviction came with a 90-day jail sentence, apparently the first time a Maine landlord has been penalized with jail for a misdemeanor code violation.

Nisbet appealed the code violation to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. During oral arguments May 15, justices seemed skeptical of the claim by Nisbet’s attorney that the fire code is too vague to be enforced. The court has not issued a ruling.

Nisbet also faced civil lawsuits filed by the families of the victims. Those cases were settled in February, using $300,000 in insurance proceeds. The families each got $45,000, and a survivor who was injured received $30,000. After the settlement, each family released Nisbet’s assets, which had been frozen while the civil suit ran its course.

In late May, Nisbet sold the Noyes Street property to Fox and Hoffman, who were encouraged by a friend to inquire about the site, even though it was not listed for sale.

“At first, we were extremely hesitant and didn’t feel like it was an option,” Fox said. “We talked a lot about it with our Realtor before we moved forward.”

MIX OF OPINIONS ON REBUILDING

The couple paid $120,000 for the lot at the corner of Noyes and Freeman streets, according to the city assessor.

A portion of those proceeds appears to have been paid to Edward Benjamin, who demolished the burned-out structure and secured the site in early 2015. Benjamin had obtained a lien of $38,500 against the property, but discharged it after being paid May 23, the day the sale closed.

Today, the Noyes Street property has a two-bay garage with no-trespassing and no-parking signs on it.

Only the stone foundation of the large duplex and part of a fireplace remain. The wooden floorboards are faded, dried and curled from the fire and weather. The charred wood frame around the foundation holds five small flags with red hearts on them. Wildflowers are growing up through the charred debris, and landscaping plants that once rimmed the walkways, including a rose bush, are in bloom.

On Wednesday afternoon, Andrew Dunham stopped while walking past the property and placed a hand on the foundation. He said he lived a few houses up the street when the fire occurred. He was pleased that something was being done with the lot.

“They’d want it that way,” Dunham said of the victims.

Victims of the Noyes Street fire. Top row, from left: Ashley Thomas, David Bragdon, Maelisha Jackson. Bottom row, from left: Christopher Conlee, Nikki Finlay, Steven Summers.

A young man sitting on the porch of a nearby apartment building declined to comment, saying “it’s a touchy subject” among his friends.

Ashley Thomas’ mother, Nikki, said in a brief email that she was pleased the new owners are sensitive to the tragedy that occurred there.

“I am glad to hear that they are willing to honor and respect the children that (lost) their lives in this horrible tragic situation,” Thomas said.

However, David Foster, who knew the victims and had been to the house on the night of the fire, said he was disappointed that the city didn’t acquire the property.

“I think a lot of people were kind of hoping the city would buy it themselves and maybe do something – that there would be some actual memorial on the site,” said Foster, who helped organize a 2016 Stars of Light memorial in nearby Longfellow Park. “It’s weird that they’re putting another building on top of it and other people are going to be living there.”

MEMORIALIZING THE VICTIMS

Fox, a 50-year-old food writer, editor and content producer, and Hoffman, a 44-year-old architect, are hoping to find the right balance. They want to create a home for themselves and their dog, a lab mix named Jasper, while also finding a way to ensure that the victims are not forgotten.

“It struck me from the beginning how people come to that site and pay respects,” Hoffman said. “In a way, we don’t want to take that way from the families or the community. We’re not quite sure what form that (memorial) will take yet, but it will be something good.”

 

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