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Downtown fire: 'Close-knit' residents helped others to safety

LEWISTON — Donna Belanger was asleep late Sunday night when there was a pounding on her door.

As smoke and intense heat filled downtown Oak Street, Glen Albee, Frank Pacheco and others pounded on doors of 78 Oak St. yelling, “Get out!!”

The nine-apartment building was on fire.

“I told my grandson to get out,” Belanger said. “We got out. All of a sudden, it went up in flames,” she said Monday, sitting across the street from her home of 18 years.

She and the other 11 residents who lived there got out safely, thanks to neighbors looking out for each other.

At the scene Monday, men with saws cut plywood and boarded up windows. Red Cross staffers and volunteers interviewed residents and provided comfort, water and doughnuts.

Lewiston Fire Chief Paul LeClair said the cause of the fire isn’t known. An investigator with the state Fire Marshal’s Office is looking into it.

“It may be hard to determine because of the extent of the damage,” LeClair said. The heaviest damage was to the back of the building, typically an indication of where the fire started, the chief said.

Much of the third floor and the attic were burned away.

“There was heavy smoke, heavy fire, heavy damage, a lot of water damage,” LeClair said.

Landlord Wayne Hinxman said his building is destroyed.

“I’m not sure what happened,” Hinxman said of the fire.

He has insurance on the building, which he has owned for about 25 years.

“Some of these tenants have been here 10-plus years,” he said. “I’ll try to help them the best I can.”

City Building Inspector Gary Campbell said 78 Oak St. was built in 1915.

When the fire was first detected Sunday night, Albee and Pacheco said they were outside with friends. They smelled smoke, but at first thought someone was having a cookout.

Then someone came running from out back and told them the building was on fire. They ran to the front of the building.

“The whole side was on flames,” Albee said. “My first reaction was (saving) my grandmother.”

He and his brother, Aaron Burgess, and others started pounding on doors, getting their grandmother and others to safety.

“Lucky we were outside,” Albee said.

Pacheco, who lived on the third floor, said it looked like the fire came from the third floor back porch.

“It went up quick,” he said. “I lost everything, my couch, my TV, my clothes, my food. One woman may have lost a cat.”

American Red Cross Disaster Program Manager Eric Lynes said he and Red Cross volunteers got to the scene around 11:45 p.m. Sunday after being called by the Lewiston Fire Department.

“It was chaos,” Lynes said.

As firefighters worked to knock down the fire, “major smoke filled the air,” Lynes said. “There was a bright orange glow for miles around. People were looking for lost pets and family members.”

The Red Cross is working with 12 people, identifying who needs a safe place to stay, which could be a Red Cross-paid for hotel room.

“Everybody’s in the same boat,” Lynes said. “They’ve lost everything.” 

Looking at the building, Lynes said the reason no one was hurt “is because this is a close-knit community. The minute disaster struck, neighbors and friends helped people get out.”

And Lewiston firefighters “are very good at being able to get here and knock down a fire quickly,” he said. “They’re the best I’ve seen.”

By 2:30 a.m. Monday, the fire was under control; by 4 a.m., the fire was out except for a few hot spots, LeClair said.

When arriving on the scene of a big apartment building, “you’re not sure which units are occupied, which ones are vacant, where everyone is,” LeClair said.

After making sure everyone’s out, another priority is keeping the fire from jumping, which firefighters did. A building on Jack Court, very close to 78 Oak St., had smoke and water damage, he said.  

Aerial firetrucks were provided by Auburn and Topsham. Lisbon and Mechanic Falls firefighters provided aid.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Patricia Read removes family photos from the wall of her mother’s second-floor apartment at 78 Oak St. in Lewiston Monday morning after a fire the night before destroyed the building. The structure will be torn down in the next few days.

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