WESTBROOK — A police officer is being commended for running through a burning apartment building Tuesday night to help a second-floor resident to safety, despite thick smoke and spreading flames.

The fire, which broke out at 9 p.m. in the three-unit apartment building at 689 Main St., displaced three families. One woman was treated for smoke inhalation from the fire, which authorities say a 3-year-old started with a lighter.

Westbrook police Officer Chris Burgess was taking a report about 500 feet from the building when the call came in for the fire.

“There was heavy fire coming out of the first floor on the left hand side of the building and a lot of people running around screaming that everyone had gotten out of the building OK,” he said Wednesday.

But then, he saw a woman in a second-floor window, screaming.

“She was leaning out the window trying to get away from the smoke,” Burgess said.

“I told her to hang on and I ran in the back stairwell. It was full of smoke but not too bad,” said Burgess, who has a degree in arson investigation from the University of New Haven and was a Cumberland firefighter for eight years before becoming a police officer.

Observers said smoke was billowing from the doorway that leads to the stairwell.

The woman told Burgess that she was trapped. She had tried to go down the front stairwell but there were flames, and the back stairwell was filling with smoke.

“I told her to hold her breath and I kind of put my arm around her and led her out the back. You could hear her windows breaking from the fire rolling up the outside,” he said. “She seemed pretty scared and fearful she wasn’t going to make it out.”

They were coughing from the smoke, which irritated their throats and eyes.

“When they got to the bottom, there were flames coming out of all the windows and thick black smoke coming out of the door,” said Sgt. Timothy Morrell, Burgess’ supervisor, who arrived minutes after the fire started.

Burgess said he wasn’t sure that no one else was in the building so he returned to the apartment. Smoke was banking down the walls, and was down to chest height.

Finding no one, he started searching the building next door, which was in danger of catching fire.

Public Safety Chief Michael Pardue said the flames spread quickly and were coming from the windows when firefighters arrived from the central fire station, less than a half-mile away.

Pardue credited the firefighters from Westbrook and surrounding communities with keeping the fire from spreading to the building about 10 feet away. The fire melted siding on 691 Main St. but there was no structural damage, he said.

“When the first arriving units pulled up, it was very, very evident they had a large fire that had the potential to spread further down a block of buildings,” Pardue said.

The on-duty captain struck a second alarm immediately, and the third alarm came within about a minute.

When the first firefighters arrived, they were told that someone might still be in the third-floor apartment, so instead of fighting the fire immediately, they launched a search and rescue, Morrell said. They soon determined that everyone was out and started fighting the fire.

Investigators with the Fire Marshal’s Office combed through the remains of the first-floor apartment Tuesday night and early Wednesday, and determined that a preschooler had started the fire while playing with a lighter in a family room, Pardue said.

The residents are being helped with shelter, clothing and other necessities by the American Red Cross.

Firefighters from Portland, Scarborough, Gorham, Windham and Falmouth responded to the call for mutual aid.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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