Longfellow Street resident Carol Schiller awoke to the sound of two loud pops, which she thought was gunfire. She looked out her bedroom and saw 20 Noyes St. engulfed in flames and a person on fire running into the street.

“He was a cocoon of flames,” Schiller said.

Schiller said she called 911 shortly after 7 a.m. to alert authorities. She later learned that the side panels of two cars parked in an adjacent driveway had melted.

Damien Croxford, 26, of South Portland was on his way to work and had pulled into Burger King on Forest Avenue when he saw a big column of smoke. The fire and rescue volunteer said he went to check it out.

“I found this place fully engulfed in flames and a man lying in the street,” said Croxford, who also called 911. “When I walked up to the man, he was clearly severely burned. He was still conscious, still breathing. He was coherent but in severe pain.”

Croxford said he ran around to the back of the house and found two other people who had escaped and said they were fine. He tried to force his way into the back door, but the heat and smoke were too much, he said.

“I tried as hard as I could, but I couldn’t,” he said.

Portland Fire Chief Jerry LaMoria said the fire was “well advanced” by the time firefighters arrived. Several of the survivors had jumped from a second-story window, he said.

Betsy Van Betuw, 61, of Portland, was alerted to the fire shortly after she showed up to work at Connections for Kids at 470 Forest Ave. – about a block from the fire. She was told to get out of the building for her own safety.

“So we got out of the building, saw the flames and walked down here,” she said, referring to 20 Noyes St.

Van Betuw said she reacted with “horror” after learning that several people – five in all – had perished in the blaze, the deadliest Maine house fire in three decades.

“I didn’t realize there were people inside,” she said, breaking up with emotion.

Throughout the cold and rainy afternoon, several groups of young people huddled on covered porches in the tree-lined neighborhood near the University of Southern Maine campus. They gazed in disbelief at the charred remains of the house, whose roof was sunken in. Occasional columns of smoke wafted up into the air.

A pine tree near the burned apartment house was scorched and blackened.

Fire crews were not able to reach the upper floors of the building until dusk Saturday. Firefighters gathered solemnly as the bodies, encased in maroon body bags, were removed from the house and loaded into hearses.

Schiller said the University Neighborhood Organization is encouraging people to post remembrances on its Facebook page.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings