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

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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.

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

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

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Fire reaches the roof of 45 Maine St. early Sunday morning after burning its way up from the first and second stories of the Brunswick building.

Investigators from the state fire marshal’s office were back at the scene Tuesday, digging through the rubble left from Sunday’s fire at 45 Maine St. in Brunswick.

Business owners try to salvage possessions and their future; police investigate looting of rubble

BRUNSWICK — On Tuesday afternoon, the owners of the businesses destroyed in Sunday’s Maine Street fire gathered in the parking lot behind the former Firestone Building, along with friends, family and employees.

A 20-foot tall mound of twisted beams, scorched mattresses and wet, smoky plaster loomed beside them. Scattered within the rubble lay the pieces of their former businesses: refrigerators, a massage table, bottles of nail polish, antique Barbie dolls, laptop computers, and four 50-pound bags of brown rice flour.

“It’s surreal,” said Kelley Hughes, who owned Wildflours Bakery.

The owners had been there all afternoon, sifting through the rubble for anything they could salvage before the Fire Department demolished the rest of the building at 45 Maine St.

Some were luckier than others.

Amanda Cleaves’ massage business, Kneaded Touch, was located in the corner of the building that was furthest from the fire. She was able to fill a trailer with her possessions, although she wondered if most of them had been damaged by smoke and water.

Marita Beck, who owns EZ Auctionnet, said she had already carted away three truckloads of the discontinued and hard-to-find beauty products that she sells on eBay.

Beck said many of her items were kept at a storage unit in Fort Andross, which minimized her losses. But she kept the rarest, most expensive beauty products in the store, and most had been destroyed.

“Most of them you can’t replace, they don’t make it anymore,” she said.

Jill Jacobs, who owned Bounce Cut and Color, lost everything.

“I have nothing,” she said, laughing.

The fire started next to Wildflours, and Hughes said it was pretty much a total loss. She pointed out pieces of her refrigerator, blocks of cheese, and a wicker basket scattered throughout the rubble.

But there were hopeful moments amid the destruction.

Hughes’ husband found his grandmother’s knitted blanket half-buried beneath the wreckage. It was torn in places and stained with soot, but Hughes was thrilled. She said it was the one item she would not be able to replace.

Another venture into the rubble yielded her laminated cookbook, packed with recipes that she said otherwise only existed in her head.

But other items that the owners knew had survived the fire had disappeared since Sunday. Cleaves was missing a stereo, and Beck had reported the loss of figurines.

According to Lt. Mark Waltz, the Brunswick Police Department received an anonymous tip on Monday that a handful of young men were looting the rubble. Police were able to track them down and recover copper piping, Beck’s figurines, and other items. He said the case was under investigation.

Except for the looting, the business owners said the response from the community after the fire has been overwhelmingly positive. Cleaves said she has been approached by downtown business owners about fundraisers to help the displaced tenants and entrepreneurs get back on their feet.

Hughes said the owner of the Barn Door Cafe in Topsham had offered her kitchen so that she could continue to bake. She was moved by the offer, but said because all her products are gluten-free it would be difficult to bake in a conventional kitchen.

The night of the fire, she spotted some of her customers watching the building burn, and noticed one was crying.

Her bakery’s Facebook page has also been bombarded with support from customers loyal to the bakery.

“Will follow you where ever you go,” wrote Kelly Dow Fike.

“I am just so torn apart by your loss – I remember the first time I ever ate a muffin from your bakery,” wrote Dana Cobb.

All four business owners said they planned to reopen, although Hughes said she wasn’t sure when, and was still digesting the loss.

Jacobs said she would re-build in Brunswick, but didn’t know where.

Beck said she has already secured a new place on Water Street, and was moving her salvaged inventory there on Tuesday.

Cleaves said she definitely wanted to be downtown.

“Downtown Brunswick is an awesome place to work,” she said.

As the temperature dropped on Tuesday afternoon, the owners dispersed, leaving the rubble behind. Further down Maine Street, the smell of charred wood was on the wind.

— Emily Guerin

Long after daybreak on Sunday, firefighters continued to fight hot spots at 45 Maine St., Brunswick.