May 1, 2013

Lewiston fire started in condemned building

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

LEWISTON — The apartment building heavily damaged by a three-alarm fire Monday had been condemned by city inspectors but was still mostly occupied at the time of the blaze, a city official said Tuesday.

Questions have also arisen about whether the building's fire alarm system was operational.

The fire, which broke out late Monday afternoon, heavily damaged three apartment buildings, displacing about 75 people from their homes. The cause is still under investigation.

Lewiston Code Enforcement Officer Tom Maynard said the property where the fire is believed to have started, a multi-unit apartment building at 105-111 Blake St., was condemned March 19 after a complaint about a destructive resident led inspectors inside, where they found the interior infested with mold and structurally questionable. Inspectors decided the building was no longer fit for human habitation.

"Our best effort was to move people out," said Maynard, who last visited the property about two hours before the fire in an effort to get residents to leave. "They were tearing the place apart."

At the time of the fire, six of the nine apartment units in the building were still occupied, Maynard said.

"It's difficult for us to actually eject people unless the building is (in) threat of imminent collapse," he said.

Maynard said the former owner, Sean Watkins of Wtkins Property Management LLC, was unable to pay his mortgage on the property and walked away from the building.

Although Watkins Property Management is still listed as the owner in city tax records, Watkins' Boston creditor, ICA Mortgage Capital, began issuing eviction notices in March after the condemnation, according to officials and a building resident. 

Watkins now operates another management company in Lewiston, LA Property Management of Lewiston. He declined to answer questions Tuesday about the building or its conditions, nor would he say whether the building had passed a fire alarm inspection.

Kristen Bennett, a manager at Lewiston-based Great Falls Property Management, which was hired by the bank to look after the building, did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

According to one neighbor, conditions inside the structure before the fire were deplorable. Tom Cooper, 33, who lives across the street, said he spent time there less than a month ago, after it was condemned. 

Roaches, bedbugs and used needles littered the rooms, Cooper said. The building was easy to access for people who used it to do illegal drugs.

"You could walk in and out, in and out. That place was like a drive-thru," said Cooper. "None of them should have been living there. It was disgusting."

One of the residents of 109 Blake St. was Amber Lombard, 28. Lombard said the Lewiston Fire Department toured the building a year ago and the fire alarm system failed inspection.

"There were no (working) fire alarms," said Lombard, who did not move out of her apartment after the building was condemned, but planned to do so. "The hallway fire alarm outside my door never worked."

Gil J. Arsenault, director of code enforcement and planning for the city, questioned Lombard's claim of a faulty fire alarm system. He also said that once tenants move in, it is their responsibility to notify property owners if the alarm system inside their unit is defective or broken.

"That's unacceptable," said Arsenault. "I feel it's hard to believe that the landlord wouldn't correct it."

The fire department did not return a call for information about the inspection, or whether fire officials found anything wrong with the system at the Blake Street building before the blaze.

The last recorded involvement of city inspectors with the Blake Street building was around March 19, when inspectors were called to the property for a disturbance involving a resident who was breaking windows.

The resident had been the subject of other calls for inspectors, and allegedly would toss garbage and heavy objects out of windows and off the building's porch, according to Maynard and documents provided by the city.

Once inside, inspectors found unsuitable living conditions, including damage done to the building's fire protection equipment, according to an inspection report.

Lombard, who lived in the apartment on a Section 8 voucher for four years, had questioned her living conditions before. 

In March 2011, Lombard was awarded $2,919.01 by Lewiston District Court Judge E. Mary Kelly after Lombard brought a civil case against the property manager for an unchecked infestation of cockroaches, bedbugs and pigeons, according to court records. 

Watkins did not hire a licensed exterminator despite being notified about the problem, the judge found.

He failed to appear in court, and a default judgment was issued in Lombard's favor, awarding her damages for ruined bedding and furniture.

On Tuesday, Lombard sat on a stoop near the still-smoldering remains of her former home. She said she was frustrated with the bank's attempt to extract $15,000 in back rent, although the judge in her suit had ordered that her rent cost be eliminated until the problem was corrected.

"I just want this to be over," she said. "I want my life back."

 

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: mbyrne@mainetoday.com

 

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