BRUNSWICK — The Police and Fire departments and the state fire marshal are investigating whether any laws were broken leading up to the April 17 blaze that destroyed an apartment and commercial building at 45 Maine St.
Police Lt. Mark Waltz on Monday said a criminal investigation was launched because of the building’s pre-existing fire and safety code violations, and the danger that firefighters and tenants were exposed to during the fire.
Firefighters were almost trapped in the burning building when flames burst through the windows and roof, and one tenant had to be rescued through a window.
Brunswick Fire Department inspection records show the building has a history of violations and noncompliance with fire prevention and safety regulations dating to at least 2008.
Building owner Orville Ranger said completing the repairs mandated by the Fire Department was “a continuing process” that was complicated by “tenants that are not responsible for things and come and go.”
In February 2008, according to Fire Department records, a kitchen fire in one of the building’s apartments prompted an inspection by Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Emerson.
In a letter to the building’s owners dated April 11, 2008, Emerson said the department “has increasing concerns for the property located at 45 Maine Street.”
He told owners Orville and Sue Ranger he was concerned that one of the building’s tenants, John Farrell, “continues to display a level of irresponsibility that should be considered detrimental to the safety of the occupants currently residing at 45 Maine Street.”
The police report from the February fire indicated that Farrell periodically fell asleep with lit cigarettes or with the oven on.
The same day, Emerson sent Sue Ranger another letter detailing seven items that were out of compliance with fire and life-safety codes. These included installing emergency lighting, adding another emergency exit on the second floor, and installing a building-wide fire alarm system. Emerson gave the Rangers a deadline of April 28, 2008, to submit a plan of correction.
But by December 2009, the Rangers had still not submitted a plan to correct the violations. Emerson wrote to them again, and gave them a new deadline of Jan, 8, 2010. Sue Ranger contacted Emerson and said his letter was difficult to understand, so Emerson wrote a third letter explaining the violations in May 2010.
By last July Emerson threatened to take the Rangers to court if they did not submit a plan by Aug. 2 and had corrected all the problems by Dec. 31.
“The deficiencies listed in my earlier letters are essential to life safety and must be addressed immediately,” he wrote.
“In the event you fail to provide a plan of correction as directed and proceed to correct the pending violations within the time prescribed, enforcement proceedings in court will be initiated against you to compel compliance.”
That month, Sue Ranger emailed Emerson with an update on repairs performed, and by September the Rangers received price quotes from several companies to install the fire alarm and emergency lighting systems, and had an engineer do a walk-through of the building. They also requested that the state fire marshal evaluate Emerson’s initial findings.
In October, according to reports from the state fire marshal on file at the Fire Department, two state inspectors toured the building and determined that not only did six of the violations Emerson found still stand, there were 13 additional violations.
Although the Rangers were supposed to have addressed all the violations by the end of 2010, but Waltz said its unclear whether that happened.
Neither Emerson nor the chief investigator for the state fire marshal, Chris Stanford, would discuss the investigation.
But at least one of the companies the Rangers contacted for a price quote said the Rangers never asked them to complete the work. Tobie Kay, of Favreau Electric in Brunswick, said he never heard back after providing the Rangers with an estimate for emergency lighting.
Waltz said the Police Department is trying to determine if the other repairs were ever made. When they finish accumulating information, they will turn their case over to the Cumberland County district attorney, who will determine whether the Rangers should be prosecuted.
When asked Monday about the record of fire and safety violations at 45 Maine St., Orville Ranger said he couldn’t remember what exactly had been done to the building, or when.
But he said he and his wife had already spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating it and trying to keep up with these codes.”
“Any time you own an old building like that and new regulations are passed from time to time, you do your best to keep up with them,” he said.
He said he and his wife have struggled to keep tenants in the building. He said they used to have “good” tenants, but they have “replaced them with the only tenants we could get,” describing them as “people who were unable to care for themselves.”
Although Waltz said he has spoken with Ranger about the investigation, Ranger said he was unaware there is a criminal probe.