A year later: Noyes Street fire reforms Portland, divides neighbors

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 0

PORTLAND — Photos of David Bragdon Jr. remain in the kitchen of the Great Lost Bear restaurant, almost a year after Bragdon’s death.

“He is missed by all of us on a daily basis. As it gets closer to the anniversary, it hurts more every day,” David Foster said Oct. 21 about his former colleague and friend.

Bragdon was one of five people who died in a house fire Nov. 1, 2014, at 20-24 Noyes St. A sixth victim died four days later. It was the city’s deadliest fire in more than half a century, and its impact continues to be felt in the neighborhood and throughout the city.

Foster, who manages social media for the Forest Avenue restaurant and is an at-large City Council candidate, is among the friends and relatives who still mourn the victims.

On Sunday, Nov. 1., the public is invited to gather for a “Stars of Light” vigil and remembrance service at Longfellow Park, beginning at 4:30 p.m., which will include illuminated sculptures in memory of the fire victims.

The service will be followed by a reception at Hope.Gate.Way, a community gathering space at 509 Forest Ave.

Landlord Gregory Nisbet, of 124 Noyes St., has been charged with six counts of manslaughter and four counts of code violations. He also faces several civil wrongful death lawsuits seeking at least $11 million in damages.

The city, meanwhile, has revamped its housing inspection programs by creating a Housing Safety Office to be staffed by four people and headed by Director Art Howe.

The remembrance service, however, has become a source of contention between neighbors, some of whom object to the use of the park and a lack of public process before a permit was granted for the display.

The fire

It was the deadliest fire in Portland since a 1963 Gilman Place blaze killed six children in the city’s West End. Along with Bragdon, the fire took the lives of Ashley Thomas, 29; Nicole Finlay, 26; Christopher Conlee, 25; Maelisha Jackson, 26, and Steven Summers, 29.

Bragdon, Thomas and Finlay lived in the house. All but Summers died at the scene from smoke inhalation, according to the state Office of the Medical Examiner.

Summers died Nov. 4, 2014, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He escaped from the house, but was burned on 98 percent of his body, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Cumberland County Superior Court by his widow, Ashley Summers.

The fire was reported around 7:15 a.m., but investigators have not fully determined what time it started. The cause was ruled accidental: a cigarette smoldered on the front porch of the home, and lit other materials before the fire spread into the house through an open door, according to the state Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas.

The full report has not been released; it is the backbone of the criminal case against Nisbet, who was indicted in July by a Cumberland County grand jury. The code violations cited in the indictment are the lesser charges, but detail how the fire took so many lives.

According to documents in the criminal and civil cases, the building lacked working smoke detectors. A rear inside staircase was blocked by a bookshelf on the second floor. The third-floor bedroom where Thomas and Finlay died lacked a second exit required by city codes.

Nisbet, 50, pleaded not guilty July 31 in Cumberland County Superior Court. He and his attorney, Matt Nichols, will meet with prosecutors and Justice Thomas Warren for a pre-trial conference Nov. 20.  A trial date has not been set.

“We will see where we are at that point, but it looks like it is going to trial,” Nichols said Oct. 20.

Nichols said he will argue Nisbet was not responsible for the conditions in the home that contributed to the fatalities.

“(Nisbet) is doing as well as can be expected,” Nichols said. “This has been tough on everybody, tough on Greg and the victims’ families and friends, but he is holding up just fine.”

If convicted, Nisbet faces up to 30 years in prison on each manslaughter charge, with no more than 180 days each for the code violations.

How to remember

Ashley Summers, Steven Summers’ widow, was the first to sue Nisbet. She also helped establish (and is chairwoman) of the Noyes Memorial Campaign committee last winter to memorialize the victims.

The group raised about $8,000 and commissioned artist Pandora LaCasse to create six “light forms,” metal frames that would be lit in blue and white and hang from a tree in Longfellow Park, which sits in between Noyes, Oakdale and Longfellow streets.

LaCasse filed for a permit from the city in the summer and, earlier this month, city crews excavated a small trench for a conduit to extend power to the tree to light the sculptures.

But before the power was connected, City Manager Jon Jennings put a stop to the work.

“I did it to get to the bottom of what was going on,” Jennings said Oct. 21.

City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who represents the district, said he heard opposition from neighbors about placing the memorial in the park, as well as objections to a lack of public comment on the plan.

“I understand there are some folks who are excited to have some kind of sculpture,” Suslovic said Oct. 22. “I want to make sure there is a legitimate public process to ensure all viewpoints are heard.”

Emails from neighbors, including School Board member Laurie Davis, to the city’s Public Art Commission, show mixed feelings about the light forms and their location.

“Public art with this strong emotional content should allow for choice to interact,” Davis said. “Residents such as me would be a captive audience, unable to choose when to interact with the art.”

Summers said her committee sought to include all viewpoints from the start and invited the public to meetings.

“What did we do wrong? We submitted everything we were supposed to,” she said.

On Oct. 23, a temporary art permit was granted by the city, allowing the light forms to be illuminated from dusk to 9 p.m. for 90 days.

“Without electricity, this was not going to happen,” Summers said.

New enforcement, old issues

Art Howe’s office is in the basement of City Hall, down several winding corridors. From there, he will oversee the renewed effort to inspect the 17,000 rental units in the city as its first housing safety administrator.

A former firefighter and fire chief in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and West Hartford, Connecticut, among other New England locales, Howe said his career ascension also opened his perceptions to being proactive about fire safety.

“I do look at things more holistically than I used to,” he said Oct. 21. “Over the years, you start to look at systems and risk management as an entity.”

Following the fire, the city released logs showing complaints about unsafe and unsanitary conditions at 20-24 Noyes St. dating back a decade. The logs also showed inspectors were unable to reach Nisbet.

It was later found that the Fire Department had suspended some housing inspections before the Noyes Street fire. Life safety inspections on any home with at least three rental units are mandatory; other inspections were complaint-based and carried out by one inspector in the codes department.

In December, former acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian organized a task force to review inspection procedures, how they were carried out, and how the city enforced its codes and violations.

The task force of city officials and landlords eventually recommended establishing the office Howe leads. In July, city councilors budgeted $416,500 for the office, which is funded through registration fees of $35 per rental unit. This month, the fee schedule was amended to include discounts for things such as sprinklers, hard-wired alarms, and nonsmoking policies. All landlords will pay at least $15 per rental unit.

“We will start accepting fees within a month,” Howe said. He is in the process of hiring three inspectors, and the office will also have a clerk to compile the data, some of which will end up in an online, public database.

“One of the charges we have is to have the systems as transparent as possible,” Howe said.

He and his staff will also prioritize the inspection schedule for rental homes.

“We will have a myriad of factors,” he said. “History of violations, whether sprinklers are installed, police complaints about the building, possibly nonpayments on landlord fees.”

The older housing stock on the peninsula will likely be the first priority, Howe said, but it could be several years before a full inspection schedule is established and followed. He said he expects enforcement to be the last resort as his office looks to encourage landlords and tenants to keep their homes safer.

“I look at maybe our most important mission as engaging people. We don’t want to go down the enforcement path unless we need to,” Howe said. “I would much rather engage the landlords and tenant associations than sort of go down a more adversarial route.”

Who to remember

Ashley Summers, meanwhile, said she has found comfort working with the committee devoted to the memory of the victims. She also said Nisbet’s indictment on criminal charges brought mixed emotions.

“It is not going to bring the families back, but I was happy to know the city is taking this seriously,” she said.

“It was devastating, Steve was the center of our life, our family,” Summers said, noting their two children have needed counseling. It has been especially tough on her youngest child.

“She is so young that dealing with the high emotional side is difficult,” she said.

David Bragdon Sr., of Rockland, declined comment, in light of his pending lawsuit against Nisbet. Court documents show he expected his son would complete his training as a master electrician and eventually take over the family company.

In another suit, Nicole Finlay’s mother, Westbrook resident Lisa Mazziotti, said her daughter planned to return to school to study behavioral health to advance her career in education.

Ashley Thomas was building a career as a wedding photographer with her friend and business partner, Mat Garber. Court documents in the suit filed by her parents said business equipment was also destroyed in the fire.

In a companion affidavit, Garber said Thomas slept in a room that lacked a second exit as required by the city.

Foster said the tenants were fixtures at the Great Lost Bear, along with his friend and co-worker Bragdon.

“He and Ashley and Nikki were all part of the Bear family in a way,” Foster said. “We all loved those guys, and miss them terribly.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Banners in memory of the six victims of the Nov. 1, 2014, fire at 20-24 Noyes St. remain outside what remains of the building’s foundation. The house was torn down last winter, and a remembrance service will be held Sunday, Nov. 1, at nearby Longfellow Park.

David Bragdon Jr. worked at the Great Lost Bear on Forest Avenue in Portland when he died in the Nov. 1, 2014, fire at 20-24 Noyes St. Photos of him still hang in the restaurant kitchen.

Art Howe, the new Portland housing safety administrator, said his first goal is to engage and educate tenants and landlords to make city homes safer.

Fire consumes the 20-24 Noyes St. on Nov. 1, 2014. Six people died in the blaze, the deadliest in Portland in 51 years.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.