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UPDATE: Brunswick building destroyed by fire had 'life safety' issues

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UPDATE: Brunswick building destroyed by fire had 'life safety' issues

More than a dozen homeless after Maine Street blaze

BRUNSWICK — An apartment and commercial building on lower Maine Street that burned down on Sunday was under scrutiny for fire prevention and safety problems.

Brunswick Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Emerson on Tuesday said the building at 45 Maine St. had "outstanding issues pertaining to fire and life safety." He said the Brunswick Fire Department and the Office of the State Fire Marshal had active files on the 174-year-old structure.

Emerson wouldn't provide any more details about the problems, except to say the Fire Department had been working with the building's owners to correct them.

Orville Ranger, who owns the building with his wife, Sue, said he was in the process of complying with new fire regulations.

"They make these codes and then they foist them on you as a building owner and you're supposed to abide by them no matter how difficult or expensive it may be," he said.

The fire began early Sunday morning and burned for several hours, destroying several businesses and leaving 13 people homeless.

Emerson said the cause of the fire is officially undetermined due to the extent of the damage to the building. But he said it was probably related to an electrical malfunction in a stairwell on the Mason Street side of the building.

The building, also known as the Firestone Building or St. Onge's Block, was the third large apartment building in Brunswick to be consumed by fire since the beginning of the year.

One of those fires, on Feb. 16 at 84 Union St., turned fatal on Sunday when Richard Rugg, 63, died. Rugg lived in an apartment where the fire started, and had been hospitalized since then for severe burns that covered more than half of his body.

Gusting winds and the confusing layout of the building made battling last Sunday's fire difficult, Fire Chief Ken Brillant said Monday. He said the wind "fanned the flames," causing the fire to break out through windows and the roof.

The flames forced the evacuation of firefighters who were searching the second and third floors of the building, while others battled the blaze elsewhere.

He said the men became disoriented in the smoke and intense heat and some had to escape through windows because they were unable to get out via the stairwell.

"The apartments are very deep," he said. "Once you get turned around in there it gets confusing."

One resident had to be evacuated through a third-floor window overlooking Mason Street. The others escaped on their own, Brillant said, and there were no injuries.

Firefighters battled the blaze in pouring rain from 2:30 a.m. until 10 a.m. Sunday morning. Brillant said the rain did little to extinguish the fire; instead it exacerbated the challenges posed by the wind and the building itself.

"Your hands are getting wet, you're getting cold, the gear gets saturated with water ... it makes it miserable," he said.

After the fire was under control, Brillant said, the decision was made to demolish the building.

"The roof and different sections of the floors collapsed," he said. He also said the brick walls were cracking and shifting as firefighters worked.

"We didn't feel comfortable leaving it up with daily traffic going by," he said. "A three-story building is now a one-story pile of rubble."

The Rangers watched the demolition of the building, which they have owned for 30 years.

They said they were more upset for their tenants' losses than over the destruction of the building.

"It wasn't the length of time we've had (the building)," Sue Ranger said. "When we found out everyone was accounted for, it was sadness over the loss of their belongings and the businesses below."

The owners said they have no plans yet to rebuild.

"It's a little early," Ranger said.

Besides Brunswick, nine other fire departments responded to the blaze: West Bath, Bath, Topsham, Freeport, Lisbon, Yarmouth, Cumberland, Orr's & Bailey Island and Brunswick Naval Air Station.

The three recent fires have displaced 49 residents, many of whom are low-income and received vouchers for subsidized housing.

"These are some of our community's most vulnerable people," said Connie Jones, executive director of the Mid-Coast branch of the American Red Cross.

"While the majority of the residents will get back on their feet in a fairly short period of time, others who were struggling prior to the fires are going to have a particularly difficult time," she said.

As in previous fires, the Red Cross gave residents vouchers for temporary hotel stays, and a stipend for emergency food, clothing and medicine. The aid organization has already assisted 74 Mid-Coast fire victims since January, and is seeking donations to replenish its local disaster relief fund.

Donations can be sent to 16 Community Way, Topsham, ME 04086, or made by calling 729-6779.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Photo: Paul Cunningham / For The Forecaster

When firefighters arrived there was very heavy smoke inside the three-story building at 45 Maine St., Brunswick.

Photo: Paul Cunningham / For The Forecaster

West Bath firefighter Jeremie Whorff tries to break through a second-floor window.