LEWISTON – A 12-year-old Lewiston boy was arrested and charged with arson Saturday in connection with a massive fire Friday night that destroyed nearly 30 apartments and left more than 100 people homeless.
The unnamed suspect was the second 12-year-old boy to be accused of setting a major fire near downtown Lewiston last week.
The latest arrest came hours after firefighters had finally doused the flames from a fire that started late Friday night in the garage of a condemned home and then spread to that house and three apartment buildings on Pierce and Bartlett streets.
Fire officials said 29 apartments were destroyed, more than 100 people were displaced and damage would run to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
On Monday, another arson fire destroyed three buildings on Blake, Bates and Pine streets, just a few blocks from the site of Friday night’s fires.
On Thursday, police arrested 12-year-old Brody Covey and charged him with three counts of arson.
Covey’s name was released in court documents because of the seriousness of the charges he faces. He is being held in a juvenile detention facility and is expected to make a court appearance early this week.
Fire officials estimated the damage from Monday’s fire at $1 million.
Police did not release the name of the 12-year-old boy they arrested Saturday and charged with four counts of arson. They said they did not consider the fire Friday and the one on Monday to be connected and that Friday’s fire was not deemed a copycat crime.
They also said other children might be arrested in coming days in connection with the fire Friday night.
Fire investigators confirmed that the fire started in a garage of a condemned house at 116 Pierce St. Several residents said they saw someone running from that garage and then spotted the first flames there.
Lewiston Police Chief Michael Bussiere said his department would step up patrols to try to prevent more fires. He also urged parents to make sure their children comply with a 10 p.m. weeknight and midnight weekend curfew for juveniles.
SIFTING THROUGH THE RUBBLE
Investigators spent the day Saturday sifting through rubble as they tried to determine the cause of the fire, which began around 10 p.m. Friday.
Jerry Stanisz, a disaster assessor with the American Red Cross, said 104 people were displaced by the fire, and none of the 29 apartments that burned or was damaged by water was habitable.
Many of the residents spent the night at a temporary shelter at Lewiston High School. Stanisz said the shelter would operate again on Saturday night.
Fire officials had to shoo residents of the buildings away on Saturday morning. Many had returned to the scene to try to retrieve the belongings they had left behind Friday night.
Many of the displaced residents were Somali immigrants, including Kheyro Jama, who lived in a building next to the garage where the fire is believed to have started.
On Saturday morning, she stood outside in clothes borrowed from her sister, wondering if any of her belongings could be retrieved, including her car keys.
“Even my graduation gown is in there,” said Jama, a senior who will be getting her bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern Maine commencement next Saturday.
Jama said she went outside around 9:45 p.m. Friday and the neighborhood seemed quiet. Shortly after, she heard her 2-year-old son coughing in the bedroom. She saw the smoke and flames and grabbed her two children — including a 1-year-old daughter — and ran outside.
Another resident, Larry Guy, wonders whether he saw someone who may have set the fire. His apartment is at 128 Pierce St., next door to the garage.
“I was sitting on my porch smoking a cigarette before bed when I heard a loud bang,” Guy said. He said he saw a young man in his teens or early 20s run away from the garage and across the vacant lot between his building and the condemned house.
Police had Bartlett and Pierce streets cordoned off Saturday morning, but a garage sale went on as planned a few doors from one of the burned buildings on Bartlett Street.
The buildings at 110 Pierce St., 114 Pierce St. and 149 Bartlett St. were all owned by Phyllis St. Laurent, who was at the scene of the fire Saturday morning. She said she had owned the buildings for 29 years and had recently renovated many of the units.
“I’m devastated,” St. Laurent said. “I am just glad no one got hurt.”
She said she did not know who owns the condemned building and garage at 116 Pierce St.
Adriana Garcia, the manager of a building where one of the fires broke out, told the Sun Journal newspaper that one of the displaced residents is a brother of Gov. Paul LePage, The Associated Press reported. City fire officials didn’t immediately return a call from the AP seeking comment, and the governor’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said she was checking into the report.
LePage grew up in poverty in Lewiston and has more than a dozen siblings.
‘THE HOUSE IS BURNING!’
The scene Friday night was surreal. Two buildings on Pierce Street and two more on Bartlett Street were ablaze. Thick plumes of black smoke could be seen from miles away, and orange and red lit up the night sky from the flames and the light bars of dozens of first-responder vehicles.
Firefighters on ladder trucks poured so much water onto the roofs of both buildings on Pierce Street that torrents of water cascaded out windows and doors and into the streets.
At least 10 communities quickly sent fire crews to aid Lewiston. Some from as far away as Portland were at the scene or covering Lewiston’s firehouses.
Nimo Mohamed, 20, a resident of 110 Pierce St., said Friday night’s fire jumped to her building from 114 Pierce St.
Mohamed, a student at Central Maine Community College, said she was studying when smoke poured into her building and a neighbor yelled, “Get out! The house is burning!”
She said she and 12 other family members, immigrants from Somalia, lived in a five-room apartment on two floors of the building. They fear that all of their identification was destroyed, along with two laptops, she said.
Mohamed’s cousin, Nadifa Mohamed, 21, arrived from her home in a different part of Lewiston early Saturday to check on her relatives. She circulated through the crowd of police officers and firefighters, thanking them for their efforts.
“They saved lives and put their own lives at risk,” Nadifa Mohamed said. “If it weren’t for them, the whole city would be gone.”
Mana Abdi, 17, lives on the first floor of 114 Pierce St. with her mother and brother. She saw the fire around 10:30 p.m.
“I woke up Mom; the fire was going nuts. I’m still shaking,” she said.
On Saturday, residents of buildings in the neighorhood expressed worry about more fires and wondered whether condemned buildings were being targeted — the area is riddled with condemned housing.
Some said they were worried about copycat arsonists.
“I want to get the hell away from here. This could be me,” said Pauline Griffin, who lives on Pierce Street.
“Who’s going to be next?” asked Tina Mace, who lives at 170 Bartlett St. She said she would like to move away right now. “Everyone wants to leave,” added Mace.
Aziza Ali, who lived at 149 Bartlett St., said she was planning to spend Saturday night with a neighbor who lives farther down Bartlett Street. She said she didn’t know whether she would be able to sleep because of her nervousness about the possibility of more fires.
HOTELS ARE ‘MAXED OUT’
Friday night’s blaze was actually the third significant fire in Lewiston last week. In addition to the fire Monday, an apartment house on Lisbon Street caught fire Tuesday. Although the fire damage was contained, the building sustained water damage and about 35 residents were displaced.
The number of residents left homeless by the three fires means hotels in the area are “pretty maxed out,” Laurie Levine, a volunteer with the Red Cross, said as she helped about 30 residents settle in on cots in the high school gymnasium early Saturday morning.
Levine said the late-night timing of Friday’s fire made it easier for officials to set up a shelter at the high school so victims could get a few hours of rest Saturday morning.
Pat Murtagh, chief executive officer of the Maine Region of the Red Cross, said local businesses have been donating food, clothing and household goods to those affected by the fires. In one example, Lamey Wellehan, a Maine-based shoe chain, donated seven cases of shoes, Murtagh said.
On Saturday, a steady stream of people dropped off food at the high school, and clothing and personal items were made available at the nearby YWCA.
Jennifer Gaylord, branch manger of the American Red Cross, United Valley in Lewiston, said the organization’s resources are being stretched thin by the fires. What it really needs right now, she said, is money. She said last year her branch helped 60 people; this year it has helped 400 so far.
“Our financials are based on 60 people,” he said.
On Saturday afternoon, the high school gym was bustling with children playing basketball and cards, watching TV and drawing pictures. Volunteers worked with the children to keep them busy while their mothers huddled around tables talking on cellphones and determining their needs with volunteers. Many of the families were expected to spend another night at the high school while the Red Cross tries to find new accommodations.
Gaylord said normally, other landlords step up to volunteer apartments, but that wasn’t the case this time, possibly because the fire hit on a weekend.
Staff Writers Matt Byrne and Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.
Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: