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Investigators Seek Cause of Lewiston Fire that Left 75 Homeless
04/30/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Fire investigators say they don't yet know the cause of the fire that destroyed three Lewiston apartment buildings Monday and left more than 75 people homeless. Lewiston police are also undertaking an investigation of their own. As Susan Sharon reports, the Blake Street building believed to be the source of the fire had been condemned more than a month ago, but remained occupied by tenants.

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Investigators Seek Cause of Lewiston Fire that Lef
Originally Aired: 4/30/2013 5:30 PM

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Today, the scene of the fire on a half-city block resembles a charcoal pit. The three buildings were so heavily damaged that officials say they will all have to be demolished. No one was seriously hurt, but the fire spread so quickly that residents had no time to grab their belongings, or, in some cases, save their pets.

Lew fire 7Amber Lombard and Mike Leeman (right) say, in their case, an alert, pot-bellied pig actually saved their lives. "She started squealing," Lombard says.

"She smelled the fire before anything - she smelled the fire. She went mental," Leeman says.

"I think she was trying to tell me something was wrong," Lombard says. "I tried to grab her, but I also had a dog in my arms, too, at the same time. And my dog is freaking out. I'm trying to cover her head from smoke, trying to grab the pig, but I ended up dropping the pig - and I lost her."

Lombard says her pig, nicknamed "Miss Piggy," perished in the fire and the couple escaped with the clothes on their backs.

Next door at 76 Pine Street on the third floor, Angela Gayton was taking a nap with her one-month old baby, Stella Rose. When Stella started crying Angela says she immediately smelled smoke, looked out the window and saw the eve of her building on fire.

Lew fire 6"And as I turned around it just went 'kaboom,' pretty much," Gayton (right in photo, left) says. "All my windows blasted. I grabbed her and went downstairs and the only reason I got a stroller is 'cause I had just got home from a walk and I left it on my porch."

Gayton's boyfriend, Joseph Santos (left in photo, left), was working across town on a roofing job. He says when he saw all the smoke coming from downtown Lewiston he got nervous. And then he heard a news report that confirmed his worst fears: His apartment building was on fire.

The couple lost everything they owned. Standing near his former apartment this morning, wearing jeans he borrowed from a friend, Santos says the most precious items were photos of the mother he lost in another tragedy three decades ago.
"And I can never ever, ever, ever get them back. You know what I mean?" Santos says tearfully. "This is a lot of things that we're never going to get back, ever."

"I'm still in shock. I know myself. I'm still in shock," Gayton says.

Lew fire 4While fire investigators say they don't yet know the origin of the fire, they say they are confident that they know where it started: on Blake Street in a nine-unit building that had been condemned on March 19. Tom Maynard is Lewiston's code enforcement officer.

"We condemned the building because of its severe deterioration," Maynard says. "We made advising tenants that it was unsafe for them to be there, that they need to find new apartments, new rents, that the bank was taking over. And actually we'd been by a couple of hours before the fire started, talking to the last of the tenants, telling them they needed to find new places to live."

Maynard says it's difficult for the city to eject people unless the building faces imminent collapse or danger. For one thing, city officials don't want to put anyone on the street. In this case no timetable was given for people to move out since there were several families with children. Six of the nine units remained occupied despite the order.

Corporal Jeffrey Baril of the Lewiston Police Department says there was one tenant who was angry about the process and caused some serious damage.

"At one point, got angry and had thrown some furniture out the front windows," he says. "So there was some of that. There was a lot of good people here. I don't think it was these people didn't want to move or were resistant to move. It's all about resources. I mean, to come up with a security deposit, a month's rent and to relocate is a difficult process for most people, never mind if you're of limited means."

Maynard says some of the tenants had not paid rents for more than six months, which contributed to the apartment owner's financial problems and a bank takeover of the building. But Santos remains angry with the city for being too lenient with the tenants.

"I have a question for the city: 'Why did you not take the people out of there? Why did you allow them to ruin all our lives? You allowed it. They allowed it!'" he says.

Now the Red Cross is trying to help Santos and his girlfriend, along with 34 other families, find temporary living arrangements - many stayed in motels last night - and help get them prescription medication, hearing aids, clothing and other essential items they lost in the fire.

Santos says there are two things he's grateful for: the safety of his family and the kindness of strangers, who offered the young couple money, infant formula and diapers as they were standing on the street.

Photos by Susan Sharon.


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