WATERVILLE — A fire heavily damaged a three-story apartment building Tuesday afternoon on Morrill Avenue, with fire Chief Shawn Esler later crediting a first-floor tenant with saving the lives of three children by kicking down the door and getting them out.

Esler said he will recommend to City Manager Michael Roy and Mayor Nick Isgro that Aaron Brunelle, the tenant, be considered for a life-saving award.

“Responding to emergencies and extinguishing fires is part of the fire department’s job responsibilities,” Esler said later Tuesday. “We like to give credit where credit is due and in this case, a very brave tenant got three kids out and likely contributed to saving their lives. I believe it was a heroic act and this gentleman should be recognized.”

Esler said the fire rendered the building uninhabitable. Reported just before 2 p.m., the fire drew firefighters from several departments including Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield and Oakland. They battled the blaze in rainy, windy conditions.

Esler said fire officials believe the fire started on the outside of the building and then moved to the structure itself.

“We also believe it was a wind-driven fire that contributed to the rapid fire growth and spread,” he said.

The Maine Forest Service is investigating the cause of the fire because fire officials believe it started outside the building, he said.

Bystanders watched as fire crews used a ladder truck to spray water onto the building’s third floor.

Brunelle said at the scene that he had just gotten out of the shower when he noticed the fire outside.

“I looked out the window and saw flames on the fence,” he said. “I ran around, getting everybody out of there.”

Esler said later that Brunelle went apartment-to-apartment to try to get the dozen or so tenants out and when he got to the third floor he knew children were in there.

“Mr. Brunelle kicked down the door and got all three children, plus a dog, out of the building to safety,” he said.

The building at 13 Morrill Ave. is on the corner of West Street, off North Street. It was insured, according to Esler, who did not immediately have the owner’s name.

Families who live at the building huddled together in the rain on Morrill Avenue, consoling one another. A woman ran to a man who was wrapped in a blanket and they embraced and wept.

Michael Sellar, a retired Waterville police officer, said he and his daughter, Dena, were on their way to the grocery store when they saw the fire. He called 911.

“At that point, just the fence and the downstairs window were on fire,” Sellar said. “I was concerned about the propane tanks.”

Sellar pointed to two tanks at the side of the building, which were blackened because of fire or smoke.

Sellar said he told his daughter to stay inside their vehicle. He then headed inside the building to help make sure everyone was able to get out.

Meanwhile, April Endicott, who lives on the second floor of her mother’s house at 25 West St., next to the now-damaged apartment building, said she was terrified when she looked out her window and saw the building was on fire.

“I just screamed,” she said. “I’m just so thankful that our house is OK.”

Endicott, whose 45th birthday was Tuesday, stood in the rain outside the house with her mother, Donna Richardson, and Endicott’s daughter, Lauren. Their house is only feet from the apartment building.

Richardson, who has lived at the building since 2013, said it has undergone a good amount of remodeling recently.

Endicott said her 3-year-old gray cat, Mazi, was in her apartment and was OK.

“We tried to catch her to put her in the car and she scratched me,” Endicott said, revealing large, red welts on her chest.

Dustin Thibodeau was taking photographs of the burning building from a lawn across the street.

“My friend lives there,” he said. “It’s a three-family home.”

He estimated eight to 10 people lived in the building.

“It’s awful,” Thibodeau said. “They got four or five kids in there. It’s super sad.”

Waterville police blocked the streets near the building and Central Maine Power Co. shut off power to buildings in the area, according to rescue workers.

Esler said that multiple cats were found deceased in the Waterville fire.

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