AUGUSTA — More than 80 people are out of work and a woman is homeless after a fire badly damaged a Western Avenue business Thursday morning.
Marketing Unlimited at 84 Western Ave. sustained the most significant damage from the blaze, which broke out around 5 a.m. Employees arrived at work to discover investigators from the state fire marshal’s office sifting through the charred remains to determine how the fire had started.
“A lot of people walked away sad and crying because this was their lives,” said Marketing Unlimited Senior Manager Travis Jones.
Nobody was hurt in the fire, but firefighters helped evacuate a woman who lived in an apartment above the business. Jones said a second apartment was empty but two people were making plans to move in. Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette said the displaced woman will stay with family.
Audette said firefighters arrived to a “pretty significant” fire. Crews from Gardiner, Togus, Winthrop and Chelsea were called to help. The first floor, which housed Marketing Unlimited, was heavily damaged. Smoke damaged the second floor apartments, Jones said.
Audette said the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction in a first-floor ceiling fan. Marketing Unlimited Senior Manager Nick Walters said the fan recently began malfunctioning. It was scheduled to be fixed Thursday, he said.
The telemarketing business, which makes calls for natural supplement companies, has about 82 full and part-time employees. Many of those people are single parents who need the job to supplement state assistance, Jones said. The company also hires a number of people previously convicted of crimes who might otherwise find it difficult to find a job.
“We help everyone we can,” Jones said. “It’s a place where people have an opportunity.”
Stephen Sylvain owns the building, which is insured, Jones said. He and Walters spent much of Thursday morning fielding phone calls, talking to employees, and trying to determine how and when they might begin the process of putting people back to work.
“It’s whether or not our servers made it through the fire,” Walters said.
Audette said there were 54 computer terminals in the business.
“I don’t think any of them are salvageable,” he said.
Jones said he hopes to re-establish 14 work stations within the next couple of weeks, which would allow about 30 people to return to work. Representatives of career and unemployment services met with a number of employees Thursday morning.
“Our hopes are to get back up to at least 50 percent quickly,” Jones said.
Justyn Gifford, 25, of Augusta, has worked for Marketing Unlimited since 2008. He said his is the sole income for a family that includes his wife and two children.
“Now I’m out of a job,” Gifford said. “It’s pretty grim for me. It’s definitely tough.”
Alex Whitmore, 19, of Gardiner, began working at the center a few months ago and discovered he had a knack for the work.
“I love to sell stuff,” he said. “I started to make sales pretty quickly.”
Gifford said he heard about the fire from a co-worker. Gifford thought it was a prank until he arrived at work. He plans to look for odd jobs until he can get back to work at the center. Gifford said he is determined to help get the business back up and running.
“I’m definitely going to help pick up and make this place the best I can,” he said. “It’s a huge part of my life.”
Staff Writer Susan Cover contributed to this report.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642