May 7, 2013

Fear has some ready to pack up and leave city

Meanwhile, residents speculate on whether the frequent fires will continue, or are just coincidence.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

LEWISTON - The rubble was still smoldering Monday when the chatter began.

Over the past eight days, three major fires have destroyed 79 apartments in the city and left nearly 200 people homeless. With each fire, the rumors, fear and speculation in Lewiston's dense downtown neighborhoods have intensified.

"It makes me wonder which building is going to be next," said Jenn Ahlberg, who lives near the eight-unit apartment buildings at 114 and 118 Bartlett St. that were destroyed by fire Monday morning. "I'm afraid. I'm afraid for my city."

One 12-year-old boy apeared in court on charges of setting the April 29 fire on Blake Street that caused more than $1 million in damage. A second 12-year-old boy has been charged with setting a blaze Friday night that displaced more than 100 people.

As of Monday night, no one had been charged in the third fire.

Eleanor McGraw, who lives across Bartlett Street from the vacant buildings that burned Monday morning, said she woke up and saw a "big fireball."

She said she has lived in this city of 36,000 with her four kids on and off since 1997, but now wants to leave.

"We're moving," said McGraw. "It's gotten to the point, you hear a siren and you automatically look for flames."

Wesley Stover rushed to the fire scene to watch Monday morning after he got a call from a friend. He said he lived in one of the buildings when he was a child.

Stover and his wife, Kelly, said their sons, ages 3 and 4, are scared of the fires.

"I want to get out of this town," he said. "This is getting ridiculous. I'm ready to pack my bags and go."

Perhaps in the minority is Jim Merchant, who dismissed speculation that something larger is happening.

"I think it's just coincidence," Merchant said. "I don't think something's going on. That's how things go; it comes in spurts."

Leaning on the door frame next to him was Kathy Tremblay, who shook her head as Merchant spoke. "I don't think it's ended," Tremblay said. "It's scary as heck."

On Monday, it seemed that the only thing that spread faster than the flames were the theories about why so many buildings have burned.

Residents fell generally into two categories: armchair fire marshals who pointed out char marks on the buildings from behind yellow police tape, surmising the fire's cause and the accelerants that were used; and purveyors of scuttlebutt who stood ready to repeat the latest account from a friend of a friend who knew exactly what happened.

In the latter category was Shannon McWilliams, who works at a convenience store near the buildings that burned Monday morning. 

"There were two guys fighting over a girl," said McWilliams. "We watched one guy get arrested right here. I guess he was seen running from the scene."

She was referring to Brian Morin Sr., 29, who said he was near the scene of the fire shortly after it began. He was taken into police custody and questioned for seven hours but denied any involvement.

Investigators released no information about the cause of the third fire, but many residents' comments focused on the 12-year-olds who are accused of setting the first two.

"Where are the parents of these 12-year-old kids who set fires in the middle of the night?" said Don Allen, owner of Poirier's Market, steps from the scene of the third fire.

Allen said a weak family structure, a lack of role models for youngsters and the crushing poverty of the neighborhood are all factors in its decline.

"They need to find things for kids to do," Allen said. "But unfortunately, it comes down to money." 

Staff Writer Gillian Graham contributed to this report. 

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

 

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