James Ford and Michael Moore were searching frantically for a way to escape their third-floor Biddeford apartment as flames climbed up the only stairway, but the two men were trapped – unable to escape even out a window and were ultimately killed by the smoke and heat of the Sept. 18 fire, according to a lawsuit filed against their landlord on behalf of their families.

Ford and Moore’s final moments were actually followed by Ford’s girlfriend, who had been communicating with him using a video chatting program when Moore discovered the fire.

“I heard Moore enter the room that Ford was in … and say: ‘the house is on fire,'” Chandra Osthoff of Essex, Iowa, said in an affidavit included with the lawsuit, which was filed in York County Superior Court on May 28 against building owner Nielsen Clark. “I then heard and saw both of them communicating with each other about escaping. I observed them in a state of panic.”

Ford disconnected from the computer chat and called Osthoff back on his cell phone. It was just before 4 a.m.

“During the second call, I heard Moore say: ‘The place is on fire … we need to get out.’ I also heard James say: ‘It’s so hot. What do we do?” she said. She recommended they keep their heads down and look for a window to get out. Then the line went dead.

Osthoff’s information was particularly distressing for the men’s family members, who were initially told that both men were asleep when they were overcome by smoke.

The grand jury indicted Dylan Collins, 18, of Biddeford, on charges of depraved indifference murder and arson. Police say he set fire to the rear stairwell – the one that led to Ford’s and Moore’s apartment – of the building at 35 Main St. to scare a former girlfriend. He did not know Ford and Moore.

“The lawsuit does not diminish the responsibility of Dylan Collins,” said Michael T. Bigos, of the firm Berman & Simmons. “He should be held responsible for it. In a case like this, the person who set the fire and the person who owned the apartment building should both be held responsible but in different ways.”

Bigos said Osthoff’s experience that night is important to understand what Ford and Moore endured.


“Chandra witnesses the sheer horror of what James and Michael were going through and she’s been scarred by it,” Bigos said Thursday. “Hopefully (her statement) makes a difference for all future tenants who face landlords with serious safety violations where they live.”

An affidavit by a former investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Michael Keely, says Ford and Moore died because there was no second means of escape from their apartment as required under the National Fire Protection Association life safety code, and because there was no working smoke detector near the door of the apartment.

“If the apartment was equipped with a second means of egress, as was required, it is almost certain that Ford and Moore would have escaped the building without injury or with minimal injury,” he said in the suit. Had there been a smoke alarm, Ford and Moore likely would have escaped down the stairway before the smoke got too thick to survive, though they may still have been badly injured in the process, Keely said.


Investigators found no working smoke detectors in the apartment where Moore and Ford lived. They also said there were no fire escapes from the finished attic where both men slept or elsewhere in the rear section of the building, although there were fire escapes in the front section. The front section of the building, containing most of its units, is brick and was separated from the wooden rear section by a wall. It sustained little damage.

When firefighters arrived to try to rescue the two men, the smoke was so thick they had to crawl on their hands and knees. Firefighters helped a family living in the other second-floor apartment escape through a second-story window.

Moore, 23, and Ford, 21 – friends since they were 8 years old – were removed unconscious from their apartment. Moore died the next day at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Ford hung on for 26 days before succumbing to heat and toxins he inhaled. His medical bills totaled $288,000, according to the lawsuit.

Nielsen B. Clark, of Englewood, Florida, is the owner of the building and the target of the lawsuit. Clark purchased the building in 1992. It is valued for tax purposes at $298,000, according to city records. Clark has not responded to repeated efforts to reach him by phone but his attorney, Gregory Clayton of Camden, did acknowledge the suit but would not comment on it.

Raymond Herrick, the property manager who lived in the front portion of the building, said he oversaw the installation of smoke detectors, which were connected to the building’s electrical system and had battery backup. There were detectors in each unit as required, he said in the days after the fire, but tenants sometimes disconnected them, he said.


Investigators with the State Fire Marshal’s Office were unable to say at the time whether there had been smoke detectors that were disconnected, but said the only alarm that sounded was one pulled manually by a police officer, the first emergency worker at the scene.

Moore’s death could lead to criminal charges for the building’s owner and the property manager. York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery said Thursday her prosecutors continue to work with the State Fire Marshal’s Office and that the case remains under review.

State law requires smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in all rental units. The law says apartment building owners must conduct routine maintenance on the devices. The law also requires a second means of escape for each floor of an apartment.

Bigos said he expects the jury award to exceed more than $1.8 million for each of the men, far more than the $1 million in liability insurance carried on the building by its owner and has asked the court to attach Clark’s assets to help cover any judgment.


The lawsuit contends that Clark’s negligence deprived the two men and their families of their lifetime earnings, caused them pain and suffering and deprived their friends and family of their comfort and care.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the men’s families. Neither man had children, but they had parents and siblings.

“I just think we deserve answers,” said Justine DiPietro, Ford’s sister. “Why would you rent out that apartment to two young people? … You didn’t think about it? You didn’t care? I can’t believe the neglect that apartment got and how much money they made.”

She recalled that when her brother was 15 days late on the $700 rent, he got a warning to pay up or be evicted.

“Renters aren’t second-class citizens. They pay rent. They pay their taxes just like anybody else,” she said.

“We want a full and fair investigation as to what went wrong,” said Tonya Dalbo, Moore’s sister. She said if the lawsuit gets more landlords to realize they are responsible for the safety of their tenants, then it will be a positive result.