UPDATE: Fire in Portland's Old Port ruled accidental

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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.

Sidebar Elements

Firefighters worked through the early afternoon Thursday, Sept. 19, to douse remaining hot spots in the basement of Fore Street properties damaged by an early morning fire. Joesph Soley, owner of the 416 and 420 Fore St., was cited for 11 fire code violations in April and May.

Joe Kelley, owner of Joe’s New York Slice Bar, in front of his smoke-damaged Fore Street restaurant on Thursday. Kelley said all of the restaurant’s food and beverages had to be thrown out and his employees will be out of work until the business can reopen.

Crews clean up after a three-alarm fire on Wharf Street gutted the basements of several businesses early Thursday, Sept. 19.

Debris from an early morning fire is piled up outside the entrance of the Dancing Elephant II Indian restaurant Thursday morning, Sept. 19, on Wharf Street in Portland.

Firefighters take a coffee break on Fore Street after a three-alarm fire that damaged five Wharf Street businesses early Thursday, Sept. 19, in Portland.

Power may be on, but businesses still coping with fire’s impact

PORTLAND — Last week’s Fore Street fire left significant smoke and water damage, and city health inspectors said Monday that nearly all of the food and beverages stored by several businesses had to be thrown out as a safety precaution.

Harmful chemicals in the smoke could have penetrated the goods, and a loss of power led to unsafe food storage temperatures, city health inspector Tom Williams said.

Further, all discarded food has to be “denatured,” which involves dousing it in a bleach-like chemical to prevent people from plucking it out of trash and eating it, Williams said. Liquids also have to be poured out, an activity often videotaped by businesses for insurance purposes. 

Williams said the smoke from the fire essentially put all of the food at the businesses in jeopardy.

“It affected everything,” he said. “Anything possibly contaminated with smoke had to be disposed of.”

Even canned goods were thrown out, Williams said, because salvaging the food would have required an expensive chemical wash.

“Everyone got rid of them,” he said. “It’s better for insurance purposes to err on the side of safety.”

The city’s health inspectors follow state guidelines when determining what has to be thrown out after a fire, although each situation can have several variables.

The building where last week’s fire originated, home to Joe’s New York Slice Bar and The Dancing Elephant II Indian restaurant, will remain closed until after a structural engineer deems the building is safe. Once the building is OK’d for occupancy, health inspectors will go in and determine what health and environmental safety issues need to be addressed before the businesses can reopen.

Other businesses, including East End Cupcakes, CS Boutique and Old Port Candy Co., have now had their power turned back on. Still, much of their merchandise had to be thrown out, said Michael Russell, health inspection program manager for the city.

“It’s hard to see that much inventory tossed,” he said.

— Will Graff