FORT KENT, Maine – An investigator from the state fire marshal’s office was in Fort Kent on Sunday after an early morning fire destroyed three historic buildings on West Main Street.
“The cause of the fire is under investigation,” Tim Lowell, senior investigator said. “That’s really all I can say right now.”
Lowell was interviewing witnesses and residents of several apartments destroyed in the blaze.
He was unsure of the exact number of apartments destroyed or the number of people involved.
“But we have been assured everyone has been accounted for,” he said.
Scores of firefighters from nine departments in Maine and New Brunswick responded to the fire which claimed a historic Fort Kent building housing Nadeau’s House of Furniture and the neighboring structure housing Acadia Home Care.
The third building in between was vacant at the time of the fire.
Tenants in apartments on the building’s second floors were safely evacuated with only minutes to spare and no injuries were reported.
Among those helping to get the tenants out was Tony Enerva with the Fort Kent Police Department.
“We had literally minutes to get people out,” Enerva said from the scene Sunday morning. “We are really lucky nobody got hurt.”
Arguably the luckiest resident is Jenna Roy, 24, who lived in an apartment above Acadia Home Care and who can thank social networking for getting her out of harm’s way.
“I had fallen asleep with the TV on,” Roy said Sunday afternoon. “I got a text from a friend in Bangor who had read about the fire on Facebook and wanted to know if I was OK.”
Roy said the text message alert ring on her cellphone woke her up and when she looked out her living room window, she saw firetrucks.
“I went to look out my kitchen window and saw firetrucks and lots of water,” she said. “Then I went to look out my bathroom window and saw the flames coming out of the roof of the building next door.”
Roy said she quickly put on sweatpants and sweatshirt, grabbed a duffel bag and packed up her computer, cellphone and wallet and ran down the apartment’s stairs.
When she got to the front door, water from the fire hoses was already cascading into the building.
“I looked out and a fireman saw me and I saw him signal to another fireman,” Roy said. “The other fireman ran over and pulled the door open and pulled me out.”
Matt Bard, an employee for the town who was checking water control pumps behind the buildings around midnight, reportedly first spotted the fire.
First on the scene was Fort Kent Police Officer Richard Martin who said he could hear the flames behind the walls as he alerted tenants to the fire.
“It’s amazing how fast [the fire] went,” Martin said, adding it appeared the fire started in the rear of the buildings.
Residents escaped with just the clothes on their backs and Martin said one woman did not even have time to get her eyeglasses.
The two buildings’ close proximity to each other made it a challenging blaze to fight, according to Edward Endee, Fort Kent fire chief.
With the two buildings destroyed, crews had turned their attention to saving a third building housing the China Garden Restaurant.
Heat from the fire was so intense it shattered glass in two businesses across the street in addition to melting signs and damaging a pair of riding lawnmowers at Sears.
“I am absolutely stunned by this,” Alan Susee, owner of the Sears store said as he watched firefighters battle the blaze. “We’ve lost a real landmark here in town that is irreplaceable.”
Firefighters pumped thousands of gallons of water taken directly from the St. John River behind West Main Street onto buildings near the blaze.
Though businesses like Sears and nearby RadioShack and Roger’s Sport Center sustained some cosmetic and inventory damage from the fire’s heat, the buildings were spared.
“I feel like the luckiest guy in Fort Kent,” Susee said. “We had eight [fire] departments roll into town and it was like they had always worked together. Those guys saved my business.”
In return, Susee is starting a fundraising campaign with a $500 donation to the individuals and families who lost their homes and belongings due to the fire.
Susee is challenging other Main Street businesses to participate by meeting or exceeding his donation.
The American Red Cross had set up a response station in town and by Sunday afternoon supplied displaced residents with prepaid credit cards to buy groceries and other necessities.
A benefit has already been planned for April 11 at the Swamp Buck Restaurant in Fort Kent from 6 to 11 p.m. and organizers have set up a PayPal donation site for victims which can be reached at PayPal’s website.
The Nadeau’s House of Furniture building was constructed around 1880 and for the past 37 years, Ellery “Arms” Labbe and his sons Pat Labbe, David Labbe and Phil Labbe have operated furniture and flooring businesses from the site.
“This was not only a historical landmark,” Dave Labbe said as he watched the fire consume this family’s business. “My dad made it what it is today and we all worked so hard there for so many years and to look at it now, destroyed in a half hour — I just can’t believe it.”
Firefighters managed to save a separate building housing the flooring business but a third building used for furniture storage was heavily damaged by smoke, heat and water.
“Everyone is safe,” Labbe said. “When we heard there was a fire, our first thoughts were for the tenants and did they get out OK.”
Labbe said when he arrived and saw the tenants — including a young couple with a baby — safely outside, he broke down in tears.
Among the tenants was Chad Pelletier who was watching the fire with Labbe and who was not at home when it broke out.
“When I got here there was nothing to see in the front [and] I walked around to the back and asked the firemen if I could go inside to get the keys to my truck so I could move it,” Pelletier said. “They would not let me in and by the time I’d walked around to the front again there were flames coming out the windows and I thought, ‘that’s it.’”
Firefighters on the scene reported the building was totally engulfed when they arrived and estimated it took less than 20 minutes for Nadeau’s House of Furniture to be completely destroyed.
“That building is in most of the historic photos you see of Fort Kent,” Don Guimond, town manager, said from the scene. “This has taken out the middle of our community [and] the heart of our downtown is gone.”
David Labbe said the business was insured and it is unknown how many of the tenants had renters insurance.
In addition to the Fort Kent Volunteer Fire Department, crews from St. Francis, St. Agatha, Frenchville, Madawaska, Cross Lake, Eagle Lake, St. Francois, New Brunswick and Clair, New Brunswick assisted at the fire.