BIDDEFORD – A fire in a downtown apartment building killed one person, left eight people homeless and forced police to close a section of Main Street for several hours Tuesday night.

Two firefighters were taken to Southern Maine Medical Center after complaining of chest pains and difficulty breathing, and a resident who was rescued by passers-by also was hospitalized.

“We have one confirmed fatality in a first-floor apartment,” said Sgt. Joel Davis of the state Fire Marshal’s Office. “Our major concern right now is trying to figure out why we have a victim.”

He said investigators would spend most of the night examining the four-story building at 29 Main St., looking for clues to help them determine what started the fire.

The victim was a 39-year-old man, said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety. His name was not released Tuesday pending notification of his relatives, who live out of state.

McCausland said the fire started in a second-floor apartment in the six-unit building.

Biddeford Fire Chief Joseph Warren said his department got a report of a fire and an explosion at 29 Main St. around 5:25 p.m.

The building, across Hill Street from Liberty Park, overlooks the intersection of Main, Water and Hill streets. Traffic was rerouted around the area, which is near City Hall and the police department.

When firefighters arrived, they encountered heavy smoke coming from the rear of the building.

“We heard that people might be trapped in the building, so we put out the call for a second alarm,” Warren said. Old Orchard Beach, Saco, Scarborough and Arundel sent fire crews to help Biddeford firefighters.

If there was an explosion, he said, he was not sure what might have caused it. Warren said firefighters found an oxygen tank, used by one of the residents for breathing, but the tank was intact.

Michael Wright, 26, of Biddeford was driving past the building with his girlfriend when he noticed smoke and flames. He also saw an elderly woman on the second floor, standing near a window and screaming for help.

“Smoke was barreling out of the second floor. I had to stop because I know people who live in that building,” Wright said.

He and another person — a man he did not know — raced upstairs, kicked down the door to the woman’s apartment and carried her to a waiting ambulance. Her condition and name were not available late Tuesday night.

“I couldn’t breathe (inside the building). There were flames shooting out all around us and the floor was starting to catch fire,” Wright said.

When told that someone had died in the fire, Wright became emotional. “I tried, I really tried,” he said.

Warren said the building’s interior and much of its exterior were heavily damaged. “The back side of the building is completely gone,” he said.

The American Red Cross was on the scene, trying to find temporary housing for the eight displaced residents.

One of them, Tawni Ileaboya, stood in Liberty Park late Tuesday night wearing shorts, sneakers and a shirt. She was picking up her friend’s child from day care and was not at home when the fire broke out. Her husband also was not at home.

She shook her head and sobbed. “We lost everything,” Ileaboya said.

She praised firefighters for retrieving a laptop computer from her second-floor apartment. It could help in her search for a job as an administrative assistant. Ileaboya, who moved to Biddeford from Washington state, has been unemployed for some time.

“We started with nothing, from sitting on blankets in our apartment, to furnishing it myself. Now we have nothing again,” Ileaboya said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]