WATERVILLE — A fast-moving fire tore through a five-unit apartment building in the city’s South End Monday, destroying the building and leaving 12 people homeless and two cats unaccounted for.

By early evening, what was left of the three-story building was being razed.

“It’s being torn down,” fire Chief David LaFountain said just before 5:30 p.m. “There’s an excavator over there, and it’s going to be ripping it down toward the street and putting it back into the basement.”

Fierce wind made the fire at 15 Paris St. dangerous and difficult to fight, according to LaFountain.

Just before noon he said, “With the wind conditions, it blew the fire all over the place. It kept changing directions. Right now we’re in defensive mode, which means nobody goes inside.”

About 40 firefighters from Waterville, Winslow and Fairfield battled the blaze, which was reported at 10:12 a.m.

Waterville fire officials, investigators from the state fire marshal’s office and Waterville police detectives worked Monday to determine the fire’s cause.

Nine adults and three children lived in the building at the time of the fire.

As fire raged through the building, second floor tenant Brad Hall, 32, stood shivering on Paris Street watching.

His three children were in school when the fire started, and he was in the shower when he smelled smoke, got out of the shower, dressed, scooped up his cat, Buster, and fled. He lost everything in the fire.

“It was either grab stuff or get dressed,” Hall said. “I got dressed and grabbed my cat. I have a lot of electronics. I’m always buying new stuff.”

Hall, who said he has renters insurance, said he had never experienced anything like Monday’s fire.

“It’s one of those things you never think will happen to you,” he said.

A Waterville school bus was called to the scene to serve as a warming station for the displaced tenants.

A couple who lived on the first floor escaped with two dogs, who barked from inside their car, but their two cats had not been found.

LaFountain said that when firefighters arrived at the scene, they could not find two tenants and they had heard one person refused to come out of the building.

Keystone Management, which manages the building, provided the fire department with names and phone numbers of the tenants. Eventually, all the residents were accounted for.

Waterville police blocked off Paris Street and part of Water Street to keep people away from the scene. Delta Ambulance crews stood by, though no injuries were reported. Oakland and Albion fire departments covered the Waterville fire station.

LaFountain said the fire appeared to have started on the second floor of the three-story building in the rear, but said he had no idea what caused it.

“We went into the third floor before we went into the second floor,” he said. “There was just so much fire, they backed out and decided to fight the fire from the outside.”

Firefighters attacked the fire from both Paris Street and Halde Street in back of the building, which was vinyl-sided and had an aluminum roof.

Central Maine Power Co. cut off power to Paris Street, which is off Water Street just north of Grove Street.

The two upper floors of the building were destroyed. With more than 1,000 gallons of water a minute going into the building, LaFountain said the first floor would have water damage, if not heat, fire and smoke damage.

As the fire continued to rage and burn through the roof around noon, Sgt. Joel Davis, a state fire investigator, said officials would not be able to get inside until the fire was out.

Bruce Tracy, who identified himself as the building’s property manager, was walking around taking photos. Asked if the building was insured, he replied, “I suspect it is.”

WIND FANS FLAMES

Just after the fire was reported, Gary Shaw, 35, of Halde Street, stood on his steps, recording the fire as his three sons, Ethan Upton, 9, Colby Upton, 7, and Ayden Shaw, 2, watched.

“My wife, Amanda, called 911,” he said. “My son actually saw smoke and came in and told us. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as this. It was starting to smoke out of where the eaves meet the building. Every time the wind would blow, it looked like it would ignite the fire even more. It was feeding it. It just kept getting worse and worse. We just wanted to make sure everyone was out.”

Ethan said he heard someone yell that his house was burning.

“I saw the smoke, so I came in and told my mother,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s still smoking.”

Brenda Taylor, who lives next to the burning building, said she was with her son Monday morning as he was getting his car inspected, and she got a call from a neighbor saying the apartment building was on fire. She went home, got her two cats, Mr. Kitty and Baby Girl, and took them to a neighbor’s house.

“My parrot, Sidney, is still in the house,” Taylor said. “He should be fine, but he’s probably flipping out because he’s by the window, watching the firefighters. He’s got a window seat for the fire.”

As she watched the fire department’s tower truck raise its ladder to the roof of the apartment building, thick smoke blew south from the building toward a park off Grove Street away from her house.

“Thank God the wind’s cooperating with us,” she said.

Her neighbor to the west, Rena Lemieux, 71, stood on her porch watching. She said she had taken in three cats from the fire and has a cat of her own.

“I had to put him in the bedroom,” she said.

Lemieux, who suffers from asthma and has a sign on her door saying oxygen is in use, also was offering to have people come into her house to get warm.

She gazed at the burning building and shook her head.

“That’s an old house,” she said. “I lived in that house when I was a kid. That’s where I grew up. My parents used to own it. We lived on the first floor.”

She said she had 13 siblings and she was second from the youngest. Lemieux said she was worried about the two cats that were unaccounted for.

“I hope they’re OK.”

The American Red Cross and Keystone Management were helping the displaced tenants, which include a boy, 9, a girl, 8, and a boy who is between 9 and 12, according to a notice released by the fire department Monday.