PORTLAND – Thursday’s massive fire at the former Jordan’s Meats plant was accidental and probably caused by demolition work being done inside the building, Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said Friday.

He said officials may never be sure what caused the fire, which took more than 100 firefighters and more than eight hours to control.

“The reality is, using torches and cutting wheels can generate sparks,” he said, though “we’re not sure that was conclusively” the cause.

The fire broke out around 1:30 p.m. Thursday, prompting the evacuation of nearby businesses, street closures and a power outage for about 3,600 customers around Portland’s waterfront and Munjoy Hill.

The blaze was brought under control around 10 p.m., but firefighters continued to deal with hot spots overnight, said Nicole Clegg, a city spokeswoman. Heavy construction machinery punched holes in the building to provide access to the engine companies, she said.

The vacant property bordered by Franklin, India, Middle and Fore streets will be redeveloped as a $17 million hotel and condominium project.

Old Port Hospitality LLC plans to open the six-story Hampton Inn in May 2011.

The fire isn’t expected to affect the project’s timetable by more than a few days, said Mark Woglom, a partner in Old Port Hospitality and president of Opechee Construction Corp.

Workers with the Belmont, N.H.-based construction company were removing asbestos and doing other demolition work Thursday before the fire started, sending clouds of black smoke over parts of the downtown, the waterfront and Portland Harbor.

“We have to take the building down in a slower fashion than we might have if it were structurally intact,” Woglom said.

On Friday, the smell of smoke lingered in the area around the plant.

Large sections of the 1.74-acre site were in ruins.

Rubble littered the area around the building, and a huge puddle remained from the tens of thousands of gallons of water that had been poured on the former meat packing plant, which closed in 2005.

Gaping openings exposed twisted metal, broken cinder blocks and collapsed portions of the roof.

Fourteen restaurant and food service businesses in the neighborhood were affected by the precautionary shutdown of electricity, said Penny St. Louis Littell, the city’s director of planning and urban development.

The businesses were without power for about eight hours, so on Friday, city inspectors checked their perishable items.

Friday morning, Anna and Rick Micucci were outside their business, Micucci Grocery, as employees cleaned up inside. As they awaited word from an inspector, the Micuccis told customers that the store was closed.

“The only thing — the most important thing — is everybody gets out and gets out safely,” Rick Micucci said.

There were about 15 people in the store on Thursday when a police officer told them to evacuate.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Anna Micucci said.

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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