PORTLAND – Chasity Holtan made the terrifying decision to drop her children from a second-story window to neighbors waiting below Friday afternoon, when a smoky blaze forced the evacuation of a Sherman Street apartment building and left 33 people homeless.

Holtan then crawled out of the window and hung by her arms from the sill, waiting for firefighters to arrive.

“I was hanging there a good 10 or 12 minutes before firefighters got me,” Holtan recalled, still shaking, her skin and clothes blackened by smoke.

Holtan, 26, was home with her three young children and two nieces when the fire broke out around 2 p.m., sending smoke throughout the hallways and 13 apartments in the three-story building at 123 Sherman St.

Deputy Chief Robert Wassick said the cause remains under investigation, and he wouldn’t say where the fire started. Damage to the building was largely caused by smoke and water, he said. No injuries were reported.

The fire was extinguished around 2:30 p.m. American Red Cross volunteers arrived shortly afterward and arranged to provide shelter for 20 residents for the next three days, Wassick said. After that, the landlord and insurance companies usually cover the cost of alternative housing.

Several neighbors, including Harley Jones, called the fire department and started helping tenants get out of the building. Firefighters and paramedics arrived soon after, filling the downtown street with flashing fire trucks, yellow hoses and rescue vehicles.

“I was getting dressed when I heard a woman scream for help,” Jones recalled, standing shirtless on the sidewalk. “I looked out the window and saw a couple people lower a toddler to safety from a first-floor window. I called the fire department and then I ran outside to help.”

Mary Howes, whose mobility is limited by Parkinson’s disease, was trapped in her third-floor apartment for 20 minutes, she said. When she first tried to leave, she found the hallway was full of smoke. She headed into her bedroom, located at the back of the building, but the smoke followed her there.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Howes said, sitting on steps across the street from her house. “I opened a window so I could breathe.”

About that time, Jay Axhami was driving on Grant Street, which runs parallel to Sherman Street, when he saw Howes in her bedroom window. He stopped his car and talked with her, encouraging her to keep her head outside so she wouldn’t be overcome by smoke. Then Axhami, who lives in Portland, notified firefighters that a tenant was trapped in a third-floor rear apartment.

“I went out the window and the fireman helped me down the ladder,” Howes said.

Howes said she has lived at 123 Sherman St. for several years, but is on a waiting list for a handicapped-accessible apartment.

According to city tax records, the building is owned by Intown Property Holdings LLC. The company also owns 131 Sherman St., the tax records indicate. A phone number listed for Intown Property Holdings is not in service.

The city’s records indicate 123 Sherman St. last changed hands in October 2007, when it sold for $1.3 million. It’s currently valued at $790,000 for city tax purposes.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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