The Portland Fire Department is investigating the cause of a smoky fire that damaged a sober house on Sherman Street and displaced 16 residents.

Sherman Street remained closed between High and State streets for most of Tuesday evening after residents of the Parkside neighborhood reported black, heavy smoke pouring out of a three-story apartment building at 15-17 Sherman Street. The fire, which was reported at 5:15 p.m., sent a thin black haze drifting through Portland’s downtown that produced an acrid smell.

Several residents of the apartment building, which is part of the network of substance abuse recovery homes run by Oxford House, were inside when a Yarmouth man visiting friends across the street noticed smoke, ran out and began shouting that the building was on fire.

Donald Carpenter, who was barefoot at the time, ran into the burning building and knocked on doors to alert residents to the danger, and at one point threw his cellphone through a window to get peoples’ attention.

“There might have been people in there,” Carpenter said when asked why he risked his life. “I’m glad I did it.”

Authorities credited Carpenter with helping residents get out of the burning building safely.

“He definitely gave me a chance to get out of there alive,” said Justin St. Germaine, who lives on the third floor. “I had just taken a shower and only had my pants on.”

When he heard Carpenter, St. Germaine grabbed his wallet, car keys, a pair of shoes and a T-shirt before opening the door to his apartment.

“I opened the door and all I could see was thick, black smoke everywhere,” St. Germaine said. He went back inside, grabbed a wet towel to cover his mouth and ran down the stairwell to safety.

Kyle Cybulski lives on the first floor. He smelled something burning, but thought it was a from a barbecue grill.

When he heard Carpenter shouting “your house is on fire” Cybulski rounded up his two roommates, who were watching television, dialed 911 to report the fire, and then bolted to safety.

“When the first fire truck got here, I couldn’t see the road it was so smoky,” Cybulksi said.

Assistant Fire Chief Keith Gautreau said humidity, strong winds and heavy smoke made firefighting conditions extremely dangerous.

Fire officials sounded a loud horn several times during the fire, a signal for firefighters to retreat from the burning building. Gautreau said heat exhaustion and dangerous conditions at the rear of the building forced the recall.

He said the damage was too extensive to allow anyone to return to the building Tuesday night. The American Red Cross responded to help residents who needed shelter or food.

“It was being operated as sober house,” Gautreau said.

He said all 16 residents had been accounted for. There are three apartment units in the building and there were working smoke alarms, he said.

The house is operated by Oxford House, said the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, the executive director of Hope House, which is located across the street from 15-17 Sherman St.

Oxford House is a nonprofit that operates self-help sobriety houses across the United States, including 13 in Maine. Eight houses are located in Portland, including the Sherman Street house, the Oxford House website says.

 

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