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UPDATE: Fire in Portland's Old Port ruled accidental

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UPDATE: Fire in Portland's Old Port ruled accidental

PORTLAND — Investigators have determined a fire in the Old Port last week was accidental, and originated in the utility area of the sub-basement of a building between Fore and Wharf streets.

Three businesses that closed because of the Sept. 19 fire have had their power restored and are now allowed to reopen, City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said Monday. The businesses most heavily damaged by the fire and firefighting efforts – Mark's Place, The Dancing Elephant II and Joe's New York Slice Bar – remain without power and will continue to be closed until inspectors decide the building is safe for occupancy, she said.

Consulting engineering firm Structural Integrity was hired to inspect the damaged properties and issued a one-page letter Friday that identified problems that must be addressed before tenants can safely return.

The letter, written by Aaron Jones, president of Structural Integrity, said the second floor of the building where the fire started, 416 Fore St., is suitable for occupancy, but that the lower levels, including the stairs leading to Mark's Place, need repairs.

"It appears that the structural damage from the fire was localized to the first floor and its supports," Jones wrote, noting that the floor needs to be supported before any access or work is allowed. "An access hole needs to be cut in the first floor to avoid any walking on the unsupported framing."

After safe access is achieved, Jones recommended repairing and replacing the floor in a linear fashion toward the Fore Street side of the building.

"The work should proceed as if it were a mining operation," he said. 

In the letter, Jones also notes that his opinion is based on "limited visual observations" and that no testing of the building was performed.

A more detailed fire investigation report is still being drafted, Clegg said.

Joseph Soley, owner of 416 and 420 Fore St. where the fire started, was cited by city building inspectors earlier this year for several fire safety violations, including problems with the electrical wiring. 

Clegg said Soley had not resolved the issues before the fire. 

The properties had 11 violations from two inspections in April and May. Inspectors found exposed electrical wiring, and inadequate fire alert systems, fire doors and fire protection equipment, according to the inspections reports.

An April 2 report gave Soley and property manager P.J. Roberts until May 6 to address violations at the building, but they failed to resolve the issues.

Soley could not be reached, and Roberts did not return calls Friday and Tuesday.

The city had been working with Soley to develop a plan to address the violations, Clegg said, noting that none of the violations raised "immediate life-safety-occupancy issues" that would have forced the building to be closed.

Code violations can often be minor issues, such as incomplete paperwork, that do not necessarily pose serious threats to safety, she said.

Two other properties – 414 Fore St., owned by Chris Gould, and 422 Fore St., owned by Richard Harding Et Al. – were also damaged in the fire.

Soley, who owns many other properties throughout Portland under the names of several companies, has had a tumultuous relationship with tenants in the past and was sued successfully by some of them.

In 2009, the city forced 24 tenants in Soley's 10 Exchange St. apartments to move out, citing life-safety code violations he had been made aware of 18 months prior.

The responsibility to get the Fore Street building back open now rests with Soley, Clegg said.

Last week's fire burned from 1:30 a.m. until after 5 a.m., Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said. Despite the flames being contained to the basement, the businesses and apartments above sustained serious smoke and water damage.

The building's power was also cut off as a safety measure, which spoiled refrigerated food.

Fighting the fire was challenging because of the age of the building and how it was constructed, LaMoria said.

"This was a very difficult fire and one that was very labor intensive to access and open the walls," he said. "Each section had one stairwell in and out, which makes for a very difficult fire to fight."

The fire also closed Street & Co., CS Boutique and Old Port Candy Co. Although their power has now been restored, nearly all of food at those businesses had to be thrown out because of refrigeration loss or potential chemical contamination from smoke, city health inspector Tom Williams said.

Joe Kelley, owner of Joe's New York Slice Bar, said he did a quick walk-through of the restaurant Thursday and that it had a "horrible smoke and chemical smell."

"It's a full loss of beer, liquor, food – everything that was in coolers has to be thrown out because the electricity was cut," he said, standing in front of his Fore Street restaurant.

Kelley, who lives in Portsmouth, N.H., and owns several other restaurants there, said while his business was not damaged by fire, he is not sure when it will be able to reopen.

"It could be a couple of days or a couple of weeks," he said, noting that the extent of the damage to the electrical system is still unknown. "And, how do you get that smell out? I won't reopen until it doesn't smell like death in there."

In the meantime, all of his employees will be out of work, he said.

"We're going to have to spend money and hope our insurance covers some of it," Kelley said. "It could be a larger building issue."

Chris Gould said the apartments upstairs in his building had "pretty good smoke damage inside."

"I haven't really heard anything. I'm just waiting for them to turn the power back on," he said. "I don't really have any thoughts right now."

The Portland Fire Department had 65 firefighters respond to the three-alarm fire. An additional 40 responded from neighboring fire departments, LaMoria said.

Soley's building, owned by 420 Fore LLC, was assessed at $835,800 in April, according to city tax records. The Harding and Gould properties were assessed at $450,100 and $432,200, respectively.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.