Portland fire, Maine's deadliest in 40 years, claims 6th victim

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PORTLAND — The Nov. 1 fire at 20-24 Noyes St. claimed a sixth victim Tuesday when Steven Summers died at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The cause of the deadliest fire in Maine in 40 years remains under investigation by federal, state and local authorities.

Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland said Summers, 29, of Rockland, was a visitor at the residence. He escaped the fire reported at 7:17 a.m., but suffered severe burns and was taken to Boston for treatment. McCausland said he died at 5:29 p.m. Tuesday.

McCausland said the fire was the deadliest in Maine since a Nov. 20, 1974, blaze killed a mother and her six children in Eagle Lake.

City Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria on Monday confirmed the identities of the other five people killed in the blaze: tenants David Bragdon Jr., 27, Ashley Thomas, 29, and Nicole Finlay, 26; city resident Christopher Conlee, 25, and Topsham resident Maelisha Jackson, 26.

LaMoria said the state Office of the Medical Examiner determined all of them died of smoke inhalation. Their bodies were found on the second and third floors of the unit at 20 Noyes, although the unit at 24 Noyes was also extensively damaged.

LaMoria said the medical examiner has not positively identified Finlay, but her identity was confirmed earlier Monday by tenant Kyle Bozeman, one of seven inhabitants who escaped the 7:17 a.m. fire.

“The world lost five beautiful souls,” said Bozeman, who jumped out a second-story window at the rear of the home to a porch roof, and then to the ground.

Rockland resident Steven Summers, 29, was severely burned in the fire. He also escaped by jumping out a second-story window and remained at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, LaMoria said.

Bozeman speculated the fire was ignited by a cigarette, and credited tenant Nathan Long for waking him up.

“I was sleeping really hard, I had been asleep for 2 1/2 hours,” Bozeman said. “Nathan saved my life.”

LaMoria said the fire is a reminder “to practice essential fire-prevention methods,” including installing and regularly checking smoke detectors and developing and practising escape plans.

“Saturday, Nov. 1, was a horrific day for the city of Portland,” LaMoria said. He declined to discuss possible fire causes or where it started while an investigation continues, headed by the state fire marshal’s office and assisted by city firefighters and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The blaze was Maine’s deadliest since a fire that killed five in Hartland in 1984.

There were conflicting accounts of activities at the apartment building on Friday night. LaMoria said investigators are looking into whether a Halloween party held the night before was a contributing factor.

Mike Hogan, who lives four houses away from the site of the blaze, said he’s certain there was a party. 

“I walked my dog past there at 11 o’clock last night,” Hogan said Saturday afternoon. “There was a huge amount of noise coming from there. It’s a party house. Everybody knows that. I almost called the cops, but I figured, ‘It’s a Friday night. It’s Halloween. I’m not going to ruin some kids’ Halloween party.’ What would have happened if I did?”

But Kristen Byrnes, who lives across the street from the home, said she got home from work around 11:30 p.m. and all was quiet.

“All the lights were out and no one was on the porch,” she said. “It wasn’t loud.”

Byrnes said her mother, visiting and sleeping in the living room, woke her up Saturday morning because of the fire.

“There was a glow on the blinds,” she said, adding neighbors were quick to find extra clothing and shoes for tenants fleeing the blaze. The victims and their families are now being assisted by the Red Cross.

Byrnes said the house was a lively one, inhabited by people generally in their twenties.

But the house, owned by Gregory Nisbet of 124 Noyes St., was not always popular.

Longfellow Street resident Carol Schiller, who leads the University Neighborhood Organization, saw and heard the fire develop at what she called a “party house.”

“I heard two loud pops, looked out the window, saw the porch glowing orange and a man engulfed in flames running onto Freeman Street, dropped and rolling on the ground,” she said Saturday.

Nearby resident Justin van Soest said Saturday the appearance of the house and the noise had become frequent sources of frustration for homeowners within the neighborhood. He said  the house was the subject of a neighborhood meeting “years ago.” 

City Councilor Ed Suslovic serves the district where the home is located, and said Monday he knew of complaints about the home.

“They were sporadic – and none recently – about trash, litter, late-night partying,” Suslovic said.

Schiller said the arrival of Thomas and Finlay led to improvements, including an overall cleanup.

Former 24 Noyes St. resident Matt McNabb said Monday he lived in a six-bedroom unit where sobriety was not just the norm, it was the rule.

“It was zero drugs and zero alcohol 100 percent of the time,” McNabb said.

He had a third-floor bedroom until he moved out in August, and said there were smoke detectors.

“I thought we had a great deal,” he said.

LaMoria said the fire marshal requested and has received city inspection records for the home and will be looking at possible zoning and code violations.

He said investigators have contacted Nisbet, but declined further comment on their conversations. Nisbet also owns two buildings on nearby Dartmouth Street, and LaMoria said his other properties will be subject to the normal inspection process.

Suslovic said the fire should create more City Council discussion about rental housing oversight, but he would still oppose mandatory annual inspections of every rental unit in the city because of staffing concerns and the fact that many newer buildings already have enhanced safety features including sprinkler systems.

“What are we not doing that could be implemented?” he said.

The victims and survivors are being remembered on the University Neighborhood Organization Facebook page, where friends and neighbors are asked to share thoughts and condolences.

On Saturday, Nov. 15, the Gold Room at 512 Warren Ave. will host a benefit show for fire victims with music from Dray Jr., The Yeti, Shane Reis, Lady Essence, Crime Wave, and others.

Tickets are $10 in advance and 10 percent of food sales will be donated. For more show information, call Randy Beard at 415-3867.

William Hall and Ben McCanna contributed to this story. David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

This story was updated on Nov. 5, 2014.

Sidebar Elements


Kyle Bozeman, who escaped the Nov. 1 fire at 20-24 Noyes St.  in Portland, examines the rear of the building on Monday, Nov. 3.

South Portland residents Kern Brereton, left, and Angelika Tokareva place a bouquet at a makeshift memorial site across the street from 20-24 Noyes St. on Monday. They were mourning the loss of friends in the Nov. 1 fire that killed five people in the apartment building.

Portland firefighters respond early Saturday, Nov. 1, to a three-alarm blaze that killed five people and injured two at 20-24 Noyes St. 

Smoke billowed from a fire that killed five people and injured two in Portland early Saturday morning.

Firefighters were on the scene of a three-alarm fire that killed five people and injured two early Saturday in Portland, near the University of Southern Maine.

An investigator from the State Fire Marshal’s Office leaves the scene of a fatal house fire Saturday on Noyes Street.

Firefighters surround the scene of a fatal fire Saturday on Noyes Street. Firefighters were still putting out hot spots nine hours after the fire was reported at 7:17 a.m.

An investigator from the State Fire Marshal’s Office walks around the scene of a fatal fire Saturday on Noyes Street.

A Portland firefighter walks away from the scene of a fatal fire Saturday on Noyes Street.

Portland firefighters stand outside the scene of a fatal fire Saturday on Noyes Street.

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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.