PORTLAND – A fast-moving fire Thursday at the former Jordan’s Meats plant sent thick black smoke high over downtown Portland, forced police to shut down streets, drew a crowd of onlookers and cut electricity to about 3,600 customers.

About 100 firefighters battled the fire, which broke out around 1:30 p.m., said Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne. No one was injured.

The former meat packing plant, which has been vacant for around five years, is about 1,000 feet long and 300 feet wide, bordered by Franklin, India, Middle and Fore streets.

Eighteen firetrucks from Portland and South Portland were used to pour an estimated 10,000 gallons of water a minute on the flames, the fire chief said.

Thursday afternoon’s gusty winds fanned the flames and “spread the fire faster than we could get our crews in place,” LaMontagne said during a news conference. “The fire traveled the entire length of the building.”

LaMontagne said he doesn’t know what caused the fire, but said, “we have nothing that would lead us to believe it’s suspicious.”

The cause is being investigated by Portland’s police and fire departments, the state Fire Marshal’s Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Old Port Hospitality LLC, which bought the property in February, had intended to demolish the plant. It plans to build a 122-room, six-story Hampton Inn with 12 condominiums on the site.

The $17 million project has been approved by the city’s Planning Board. The hotel is scheduled to open in May 2011.

Gregory R. Kirsch, one of the principals in Old Port Hospitality, said the building was not insured but “has no value.”

Brian Shedd, manager of Opechee Construction Corp. of Belmont, N.H., said he had seven workers in the building Thursday, removing asbestos and doing other demolition work. Those workers were outside the building on a lunch break when the fire started.

Shedd said the workers grabbed a hose and ran inside to try to put out the fire, but had to retreat because the heat was too intense.

LaMontagne said fire crews were told there was no one in the building, so firefighters focused their attack on the building’s exterior, making sure the fire didn’t spread to surrounding businesses.

Most of those businesses, including Amato’s and several shops along India Street, closed for the rest of the day after their electricity was shut off by Central Maine Power Co. as a safety precaution.

At the height of the fire, about 3,600 customers on Portland’s waterfront and Munjoy Hill were without power. LaMontagne said electricity was fully restored by 9:30 p.m.

Eddie Fitzpatrick, who owns The Pepper Club, which is next to the plant, said he saw the smoke hanging over the peninsula as he drove into the city with a load of frozen food for his restaurant. He was concerned because the electricity had been shut off.

Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for the city, said Franklin, Middle, Fore and India streets had to be closed. “The smoke at one point was really intense, it was very thick,” she said.

Late Thursday afternoon, heavy construction machinery was used to punch gaping holes in the plant’s brick walls and allow fire crews to send blasts of water into the two-story plant. Firefighters were ordered not to enter the building.

“We are very concerned about the structure, which has been weakened by the fire,” the chief said.

At 10 p.m., LaMontagne said the fire was largely under control.

“We are putting out some hot spots inside the building. I expect we will be here for a couple more hours,” he said. “These fires are hidden behind pillars and closets.”

Portions of India, Middle and Fore streets were still shut down Thursday night, and could remain closed today.

Steve Mitton of South Portland was among the onlookers as the fire raged. His first day of work at the Jordan’s Meats plant was Sept. 1, 1987.

“I started off in the roast beef department, but spent my last 12 years in the slicing department,” said Mitton, who stayed with the company until it closed in February of 2005.

Mitton still has fond memories of working at Jordan’s, which led him to create a website on Facebook that has photos from his days at the plant.

“In a way, I’m saddened (by the fire). I spent a lot of time there,” Mitton said as he gazed at the former smokehouse on the second floor. The smokehouse is where investigators believe the fire may have started.

Kirsch, one of the developers, said the fire shouldn’t impede his company’s development plans.

Old Port Hospitality had planned to begin sewer preparation work Monday, and was going to put in a foundation by the end of May.

Kirsch and his partner, Mark Woglom, still plan to open the hotel by Memorial Day 2011.

Penny St. Louis Littell, the city’s director of planning and urban development, stood and watched as portions of the plant’s exterior walls were torn down.

She is hopeful that Kirsch and Woglom can move forward with their plan. “India Street is a neighborhood in transition, and this would be a fabulous addition,” she said. 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby contributed to this report. 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]