Old Orchard Beach Fire Chief Ricky Plummer said Friday that the poorly plowed driveway at the Centennial Place apartments on School Street could have led to tragedy when fire broke out on the first floor of the 30-unit building Thursday.

But firefighters and other emergency workers, including those from several surrounding communities, overcame that and other challenges, saving the building and its residents.

Crews continued to work Friday on the building at 4 School St., cleaning and making repairs in an effort to get residents back inside. The portion of the building that is a former high school was not badly damaged because fire doors kept most of the smoke and heat from spreading in that direction, Plummer said, and residents may be able to get back in there this weekend.

The other end is where the most significant damage occurred. Those residents could be displaced for another week, he said. The building provides subsidized apartments for the elderly, disabled and low-income renters.

Investigators say a cooking accident by a first-floor tenant started the fire about 1 a.m. Thursday. That apartment and the first-floor hallway were badly damaged, fire officials said.

The fire came two days after a blizzard dumped about 2 feet of snow on southern Maine. An access way had been plowed from the street past the building, but it was too narrow for fire equipment, Plummer said.

“The snow was a huge, huge impediment. We couldn’t get the trucks in the driveway,” Plummer said.

“There’s no excuse for that. They need to take responsibility for their building.”

When building site plans are approved by the town, officials make sure there is adequate space for firetrucks and ambulances to maneuver, he said.

Firefighters had to haul hose lines through 3-foot snowdrifts from the street to the building before they could start trying to extinguish the fire.

More important, as trapped residents screamed from second- and third-floor windows, the department could not reach them with its aerial ladder, Plummer said.

Instead, firefighters carried ground ladders, some from Saco Street, where other engines were parked, through deep snowdrifts to prop against the building.

Three people – one in the front and two in the rear of the structure – were carried down ladders from the third floor, which endangered the firefighters and the residents, he said.

Plummer said the fire doors had been shoveled clear, though the paths from them to the front of the building had not.

The only benefit of the snow was for the two people who jumped eight to 10 feet from their second-floor windows into the soft snow piled below them, Plummer said.

“Did it change anything?” he said of the inability to get close to the building with fire apparatus.

“Probably not. We were able to rescue the residents and able to put the fire out.”

Police Sgt. Jami Ladakakos said she is still amazed the building didn’t burn down and that none of the residents died.

Firefighters were at another call when the fire was first reported. Officer Scott Jarrett was the first to arrive, followed by Ladakakos.

Ladakakos entered the building from the older, less affected side and heard someone yelling for help. She stepped through a fire door and found an elderly woman collapsed with her walker in the smoke-filled center stairway.

“I couldn’t really see her. She was at my feet,” she recalled Friday. Ladakakos tried to lift her but could only get her up a couple of stairs, so she ran outside and got Jarrett, who was able to carry her to an ambulance.

Fire officials said the one person treated for smoke inhalation was not seriously hurt.

The building is owned and managed by Alpha Management of Scarborough. A man who indicated he spoke for the company, but refused to identify himself, said in a telephone interview that the snow did not impede the firefighters’ work.

He said the company hires someone to do snow removal and that Centennial Place was on the schedule to be cleared Thursday.

A front-end loader worked to remove several dump truck loads of snow from the parking area in front of the building Thursday.

The residents were roused by the building’s fire alarm. Because it is an older building, it does not have to have a sprinkler system, Plummer said.

The requirement for sprinklers applies to large new construction and major renovations of more than 50 percent of a building’s value, he said.

The remodeling after the fire would not trigger that requirement, he said.

According to town records, the current owner is listed as Centennial Place LLC-Alpha Management, which bought the property last March for $1.4 million.

The records show the building owner in 2004 obtained a building permit for $14,000 to repair fire damage.

That is much less than that necessary to trigger a requirement for a retrofitted sprinkler system, which would cost about $200,000, Plummer said.

Plummer said he was unaware of any code violations at the building.

The apartment house fire was dramatic, but Plummer said it is far from the only place where poor snow removal complicates emergency response.

“This time of year, we have a lot of that just on regular calls for rescue,” he said.