WESTBROOK — Suddenly homeless, 23 residents of Brackett Street are staying at motels and struggling to resume their lives after their apartment house was condemned Thursday for various life-threatening electrical code violations.

The building’s owner, Bruce Hepler of Gorham, says he didn’t know about the electrical problems at 158-160 Brackett St. until city officials notified him Thursday, but tenants say they’ve asked him repeatedly to fix the faulty wiring since it started malfunctioning in January.

City officials gave the tenants – 12 of them children – a half-hour to vacate the building Thursday because conditions inside the two-unit, three-story house were considered so hazardous.

The tenants were allowed to return to their apartments for an hour Friday afternoon so they could remove any belongings they wanted before Central Maine Power Co. shut off electricity to the house.

Warned that it could take a month to repair the wiring, the tenants carried out bags, boxes and piles of clothes, food and furnishings, and one small chest freezer.

Among the tenants was William Pinkerton, 29, wearing the uniform from his job at a furniture and appliance rental store.

“We’re in panic mode here, and it didn’t have to be this way,” Pinkerton said. “We’ve been after the landlord for months to fix those problems and now this happens all at once.”

City inspectors visited the property Thursday and found it had only two working smoke detectors, electrical wiring that had been chewed and exposed by animals, several non-functioning electrical outlets, overloaded circuits, blocked doorways and a deck with structural deficiencies.

Hepler, a lawyer whose firm is in Portland, attributed the bulk of problems to squirrels getting into the attic, which has happened in the past, he said.

“I’m working to fix the problem as soon as possible,” Hepler said Friday morning. “I’m totally surprised. I’m on it.”

Hepler, who has owned the building since 2002, said he was glad city inspectors took action because “they’re looking out for the town.”

He said he would work with the code enforcement officer and fire inspector to address the problems, and hoped to get his tenants back home quickly. He had already begun making calls, trying to hire an electrician to fix the wiring, he said.

Westbrook inspectors noted strong similarities between code violations in the Brackett Street house and those found in a multi-unit apartment building on Noyes Street in Portland where six people died in a fire last November.

Portland inspectors found numerous safety code violations in that building, owned by Gregory Nisbet, and in another building Nisbet owned on Dartmouth Street in Portland. The fire has led to calls for more inspections and scrutiny of safety code compliance in Portland apartment buildings.

Hepler balked at the comparison to the Portland building and the tragedy that occurred there.

“This is not a situation like that,” Hepler said. “I’m on this. This is not a situation like what happened in Portland.”

Westbrook officials said Friday afternoon that Hepler had contacted them and said he had hired an electrician to do the work.

Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte said no one but inspectors and repair workers will be allowed in the building until all the violations have been corrected.

Three adults and four children lived in the first-floor, two-bedroom apartment. Eight adults and eight children lived in the second- and third-floor apartment, which has five bedrooms.

Charles Needham reported the situation to city inspectors this week. Needham, 35, lived in the first-floor apartment with his wife, Teresa, 35, their four kids, ages 3 to 13, and her mother, Brenda Hamill, 61, who is disabled.

Needham is a part-time firefighter and emergency medical technician who works at fire and rescue departments in Westbrook, Sebago and Sacopee Valley. Needham said he and his wife regularly called or sent text messages to Hepler to report problems in the house, built in 1895, including overloaded electrical circuits.

“It couldn’t handle the microwave and the refrigerator running at the same time,” Needham said. “When the lights started flickering on and off, I had to do something.”

The Needhams said they had considered moving but couldn’t afford it. They received no public assistance with their rent, which was $867 per month, not including utilities, they said. Now, they’re living in two rooms at the Super 8 Motel in Westbrook, paid for by the American Red Cross.

“We’re frustrated and we’re lost, but we have a great support system in place,” Charles Needham said.

Living conditions were more dire in the upstairs apartment, where there had been no electricity in a bedroom and a bathroom since January, tenants said. They ran extension cords from rooms that had power to rooms that didn’t.

Amanda Seavey, 39, lived in the upstairs apartment with her disabled father, three adult children, three adult partners and eight children.

“When we moved in, we were told everything was fine,” Seavey said. “Why would (a landlord) want children living in a situation like this?”

Like the Needhams, Seavey said she and her family members reported the problems to Hepler, but they weren’t fixed. Seavey, who works nights for a cleaning company, said she and her family also received no public assistance with their rent, which was $1,400 per month, not including utilities. Now, they’re living in four rooms at the Days Inn in South Portland, also paid for by the American Red Cross.

Both families are scheduled to meet Wednesday with the city’s General Assistance coordinator to possibly arrange longer-term accommodations and assistance. Charles Needham said he just wants to provide a safe environment for his family.

Amanda Seavey admitted to being exhausted and overwhelmed after retrieving some belongings from her apartment Friday afternoon.

“I don’t know whether I’m coming or going,” she said.