AUGUSTA — Heather Oltz stood in the rain, her face sheltered by the fur-framed hood on her long coat, looking over the charred pile of timbers on the property that had been her home for almost five years.

Oltz was one of 27 people who lost their homes to a massive fire early Friday morning that ripped through the four-story, 18-unit apartment building on Northern Avenue. All but seven of the 23 people there at the time were able to escape without injuries. Some of the others, most of whom were burned as they fled the building, appear to have been released from the hospital by Saturday morning.

Oltz, 59, was back at the fire scene Saturday in the Sand Hill neighborhood of Augusta with her son Dereck, hoping to find her two cats.

Small amounts of smoke continued to rise from the north side of the historic building, which was built in 1845 as a boarding house for millworkers. The burned-out hulks of seven vehicles that belonged to the tenants remained in the rear parking lot.

The cats were nowhere to be seen, but her son, with whom she stayed Friday night, found another cat that Oltz said belonged to a neighbor.

“That’s the cat with the eye that was shot out,” Heather Oltz said as her son cradled the wet, gray animal in his arms.

Oltz said she was awakened from sleep early Friday by a crackling sound. “I thought maybe there was a storm outside,” she said. When the noises grew louder, she got up and walked to the kitchen. “I could see orange flames just above the table,” she said “I opened the door to see what it was.”

The smoke drove her back, so she shut her door and began banging on walls, hollering, “Fire!”

She grabbed her purse as she fled, thinking her phone was in it. It wasn’t. Her teeth, too, were left behind. Oltz said she tried to return twice, looking for her cats. “Of course, they hid,” she said, trying not to give up hope.

Oltz was worried about her neighbors, especially the ones next door with the 5-year-old and 3-month-old. “I hollered,” she said. “They were out before me.”

Oltz, who works at Maxim’s Laundromat in Augusta, planned to spend Saturday night at the Super 8 Motel, where about 11 rooms were occupied by fire victims Friday night.

“This was really a nice building,” she said, almost in disbelief at the rubble. “Nobody partied. Everyone kept to themselves. They worked, came home and tended to their families.”

Oltz was one of many tenants who praised the building’s owner, Yvon Doyon, for his upkeep of the building, the presence of working smoke detectors and the fact the apartments all had doors that opened on both sides of the building.

The Office of State Fire Marshal said its investigation into the blaze would continue through the weekend, according to Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. In a news release, he said investigators believe the fire started in the rear of the building on one of the upper floors. He also said officials intend to interview all of the displaced residents.

Sgt. Ken Grimes of the fire marshal’s office could not be reached by phone on Saturday.

HOUSING NEEDS

At the Super 8 Motel on Saturday morning, Scott Cushing, 32, was wearing a navy blue Maine Black Bears shirt and pants that he had bought at Wal-Mart with some of the money distributed by the American Red Cross.

He said he fled the flames in a pair of shorts, sandals, a T-shirt and underwear. Everything else, including his cellphone, was destroyed. “I didn’t grab anything. My wallet, my cell were on the table, but you don’t think to grab it,” he said.

Cushing said he was awakened by hollering. “I went out on the porch and saw smoke coming from the neighbors’. They told us all to get across the street,” he said. “Five minutes later, I looked and the whole upstairs was smoking, lots of black thick smoke. Then the wind hit and the whole upstairs was in flames.” Next the flames struck the middle level, where Cushing had lived. “I was just like, ‘Oh, no,’ ” Cushing said, covering his face with his hands.

Cushing had moved into his one-bedroom apartment at 36 Northern Ave. in September. He works at a Hannaford supermarket, but he was unable to do so Saturday because the knee braces his doctor prescribed for him were destroyed in the fire. He also helps run the scorers’ table at Cony High School basketball games.

He said he felt lucky that he didn’t own a car, and he was grateful to the Darling’s car dealership, which provided vans and drivers to transport fire victims.

Cushing and most of the others are hoping to find some response to their longer-term housing needs when they attend a Housing and Resource Fair from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday at Gilbert Elementary School. The forum, coordinated by Augusta Housing, involves multiple agencies, landlords and property management companies and is aimed at finding housing for the fire victims quickly.

In the meantime, agencies were sending representatives to the people at the motel, and private individuals were dropping in and offering to help.

“I’d like to help with things that are needed,” said Linda Fortin, owner of a cellphone store in Gardiner. She said she and her husband could help with a number of things, including apartment furnishings.

“What’s needed is to buy everybody enough time to find a place to live,” said Brian Lewis, a longtime resident of the burned building. Lewis said Saturday that area landlords had been calling Doyon to advise him of their vacancies, and that Doyon was hoping to return tenants’ security deposits as rapidly as possible.

‘EVERYTHING’S GONE’

Maxine Morton, 71, sat outside the Super 8 Motel, smoking a cigarette and speaking to her son and a nephew, who also lived in the burned building, as well as her daughter from Vassalboro. Morton, too, was missing a cat.

Morton prided herself on being the oldest tenant as well as the one who lived in the building the longest – 18 years.

She escaped without injury but with little else. “I went out with a sweater and jacket over my nightgown and bare feet,” she said.

Her oxygen tank and nebulizer were left behind, although she was able to acquire another oxygen tank.

“I lost my glasses in the fire, my cat, my bird, all my pictures of my mom and dad,” Morton said. However, her daughter, Mona Allen, surprised her Saturday morning by bringing copies of some of those photos, which she had scanned a few years ago.

Morton’s son John White marveled at the fact that everyone got out alive, crediting it to Doyon’s care of the building.

Momeine Bynum said that when the fire occurred, he grabbed his 6-year-old daughter, Locasia, from her bed and ran from the building. “No shoes, no nothing. Everything’s gone except for our lives,” he said. He said he was hoping to get help from Augusta Housing for himself and his daughter. They spent Friday night with friends, saving their time at the motel for later, but stopping in there to see their neighbors and friends.

The Augusta Community Warming Center at 44 Front St. opened a week early to help provide daytime shelter for the displaced tenants, and it was also serving as a hub for some donated items.

Center Director Deidrah Stanchfield said Saturday some items have been donated specifically for the fire victims. Those who wish to assist the fire victims also can call the United Valley Branch of the American Red Cross at 576-0373.