LEWISTON – As two 13-year-old boys are due in court on charges they set two separate arson fires that destroyed several downtown apartment buildings, the last of the nearly 200 people displaced will finally move into an apartment of their own this week.
Maimouna Djouma and her three sons lived at 110 Pierce St. before it was destroyed. She and one of her sons are in wheelchairs since contracting polio years ago in their home country, the Central African Republic. That complicated efforts by multiple agencies in Lewiston to find the family an available apartment that was handicapped-accessible.
Djouma and her sons have been living with her eldest son, 22-year-old Michaella Ousmane, in his cramped one-bedroom apartment since the May 3 fire, with some sleeping on couches and others on the floor.
“The apartment is too small,” Ousmane said, adding that his mother and brothers are “very relieved” that they will soon be moving into a newly vacated unit on Knox Street.
Ousmane, who works full time in the personal care field, said his mother, 45, and brothers — Ouseiny, 20, Younoussa, 18, and Amadou, 13 — lost everything they owned in the fire and had nearly lost hope before many groups in the city came together to help them find a new home.
Djouma’s good news comes as the juvenile court hearings begin for the two boys accused of starting the first two of three fires that ravaged Lewiston over the course of a little more than a week. Both boys are accused of arson and are scheduled to appear in separate hearings Monday in Lewiston District Court.
Brody Covey, 13, is accused of starting a fire on April 29 behind the condemned building where he and his parents faced eviction at 105-111 Blake St. That fire created such fierce flames that it spread and destroyed adjacent buildings at 172 Bates St. and 82 Pine St.
The second boy, 13-year-old Abdi Ibrahim, is accused of starting an unrelated second fire on May 3 in a garage between Bartlett and Pierce streets. That fire destroyed four apartment buildings at 149 Bartlett St., 110 Pierce St., 114 Pierce St. and 116 Pierce St.
Covey is charged with three counts of arson. Ibrahim is charged with four counts of arson.
Two adults have been charged with a third arson fire on May 6 that destroyed two vacant apartment buildings at 114 and 118 Bartlett St. Both Brian Morin, 30, and Bryan Wood, 23, were indicted earlier this month on two counts of arson each. Morin has pleaded not guilty. Wood has yet to be arraigned in Androscoggin County Superior Court.
Juveniles convicted of arson could be committed to a youth detention facility until they turn 21. An adult convicted of arson, a Class A felony, faces up to 30 years in prison.
SITES CLEARED, FUTURE UNCERTAIN
The sites of the three arsons have been cleared, and grass now grows where the buildings at Blake, Bates and Pine streets once stood. Flat sand lots are all that remain where the multistory buildings on Bartlett and Pierce streets were burned.
Gildace Arsenault, director of Lewiston Planning and Code Enforcement, said it may take years before anything can be done with the sites.
The city is now working with the owners of each of the properties to determine whether they can rebuild on the sites, whether the city will seize the land through tax liens and what will be covered by insurance.
“I’m hopeful that we will see progress in two to three years, but I’m also realistic,” Arsenault said.
If the city wanted to take ownership of a property through a tax lien, that alone would take at least 18 months. Four or five years may be a more realistic timetable, he said.
“If we were in an ownership situation, we would probably be working differently than we are,” he said.
The fires also forced city leaders to rethink their vision for the downtown area as the city continues to draft its comprehensive plan, take down blighted buildings and plan park space.
“We’re optimistic. We think we have a bright future,” Arsenault said. “This is a really great city.”
HELPING FAMILIES RECOVER
Sue Charron, director of Lewiston’s Social Services department, said her office went to work immediately after the first arson, collaborating with numerous other agencies to find shelter for all the displaced people and replace their lost possessions.
“By the end of (this) week, everybody should be moved,” Charron said. “It’s been a long time.”
The next step in the coming few weeks will be to revisit each of the families who had been displaced to see how they are faring. Two agencies, Catholic Charities and Community Concepts Inc., will conduct the visits, looking into future needs as summer turns to winter, replacing things like winter jackets and boots.
Erin Reed, development director of the nonprofit Trinity Jubilee Center, said she stepped in to try to help Djouma and her sons as they struggled to find a suitable handicapped-accessible apartment.
Trinity Jubilee Center, which rents a space on the ground floor of Trinity Episcopal Church, functions as a soup kitchen, food pantry and community center all in one. A majority of the people displaced by the fires had some connection to the center, either as volunteers or clients, Reed said.
“It’s close to home,” she said.
Reed said she called about 50 landlords looking for a place for Djouma and her family, but no one had an apartment for them.
In the end, NC/REMA, the real estate firm that managed 29 rental units in the buildings destroyed in the second arson, found a suitable apartment on Ash Street that was already occupied by another family. That family agreed to move, freeing the unit for Djouma and her sons.
“I’ve been here since 1996, and I’ve never experienced anything of this magnitude,” Tina Pelletier, co-owner of NC/REMA, said of the crisis caused by the fires.
On the night of the second arson, Pelletier said she went to the fire 10 minutes after it began and stayed there working with officials until 4 a.m., running down a list of residents to make sure everyone was accounted for.
Pelletier said her company refunded all the security deposits of the Bartlett Street and Pierce Street tenants who were displaced and refunded the rent that residents had already paid for the month of May.
“The tenants have done very well getting their lives back together,” Pelletier said. “It’s been as positive as it can be.”
VICTIMS SLOWLY REBUILD LIVES
Adriana Garcia, who lived at 172 Bates St. with her husband for eight years before it was destroyed in the April 29 arson, still marvels months later that she and her neighbors made it out alive.
All three arsons occurred in densely populated sections of the city, where multiunit residential buildings stand side by side, allowing the fires to spread quickly. Though each of the fires was fierce, no one was killed.
Garcia said she was home alone when the fire in her building started. She had returned from the doctor’s office, taken pain medication for her broken leg, which was in a cast, and fallen asleep.
It was only by chance that she woke to see smoke coming into her bedroom.
“I jumped up from the bed, no crutches, no shoes,” Garcia said.
She said her neighbors were surprised to see her coming out of the burning building, not realizing that she was still inside. She watched from the street as her home went up in flames, the windows “popping” as they burst from the pressure of the heat.
“I said, ‘Thank you, God, for getting me out,’ and I started crying. I just lost it,” she said.
Garcia said she and her husband stayed with a friend for three weeks until they were able to find a new apartment on Pine Street.
“I walked around for three days in the same clothes, no shoes and a cast on my leg,” Garcia said. “I lost everything I had.”
The city gave her enough rent money so she could get into her new apartment. The Big Lots store and the Salvation Army gave her credits for furniture.
“I had help from an abundance of people,” she said. “I feel blessed. I don’t have what I had, but it’s me here. I feel safe.”
As Garcia talked about her experience last week, sitting in the living room of her tidy new apartment, she broke down crying only once, as she mentioned that her husband, Jaime, a professional roofer, lost two new pairs of steel-toed work boots and new work clothes in the fire. Now he has to work long days in an old pair of rundown boots.
“I don’t blame the kid,” Garcia said of the boy accused of burning her building. “I blame his parents. I think the way you raise a child has a lot to do with who they are going to be. Obviously, the child is going to need a lot of help.”
Issa Aden, a 25-year-old refugee from Somalia who came to this country in 2006, said it will take him and his mother, Rowla Ibrahim, years to rebuild everything they lost in the May 3 fire, which destroyed their home at 110 Pierce St.
Aden and his mother stayed in the emergency shelter set up at the high school on the night of the fire. After that, they stayed with his sister for about a month until they were able to move into a new apartment on Ash Street.
Aden said he and his mother were allowed back in the ruined building at 110 Pierce St. before it was torn down to recover what little was left.
Aden, who is now a full-time college student, was able to salvage his high school diploma. His mother found her jewelry. But their valuable electronics — a television and computer — were destroyed.
“The government and City Hall helped us, but we’re not going to recover for a while,” Aden said. “We have a roof over our head and the basic needs, but we’re still trying to recover.”
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: