BERWICK — The fire was already burning when Lucas Tremblay got out of the shower, toweled himself off and opened the bathroom door to see what all the commotion was about.

It was around 11 a.m., and Tremblay was getting ready for a job interview when from inside the bathroom he heard banging and yelling.

“I opened the door and a cloud of black smoke came in,” said Tremblay, 19. “So I just shut the door and I realized I had to call 911.”

Flames were spreading from somewhere inside unit 3L, one of two apartments on the third floor at 10 Bell St. in downtown Berwick, less than half a mile from the Berwick fire station.

Tremblay was not the first to call 911 – that alert came at 10:57 a.m., and soon sirens converged on the scene. Among the first to rush through the front door was Capt. Joel Barnes, 32, along with Berwick firefighter Mitchell Manfredi. Another firefighter rescued Tremblay – dressed only in his bedclothes – by ladder from the bathroom window. But soon something happened inside unit 3L, near the source of the heat and the flames. Barnes and Manfredi were trapped.

Manfredi would later describe what happened next to Barnes’ father.

Unable to escape the third-floor apartment as the fire and smoke closed in, Barnes threw himself on top of his partner to protect him.

The first outward sign of distress came from the 95-decibel shriek of an emergency alarm emitted from a safety device attached to the firefighters’ gear. Known as a personal alert safety device, the ear-splitting chirp sounds when its wearer is motionless for 30 seconds, and signals to everyone around that someone is in serious trouble.

A few moments later, a panicked voice crackled over the fire radio.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” the voice announced. “We have two firefighters missing, mayday.”

In the tense moments that followed, another firefighter exited the building and slammed his equipment down on the pavement in apparent frustration, before being taken away on a stretcher – a scene depicted in a video shot by a neighbor, Michael Berube.

Michael Berube looks out last week from the porch of his next-door apartment where he witnessed the March 1 fire at 10 Bell St. in Berwick. Berube’s video captured the ferocity of the flames and some of the frustration fellow firefighters experienced in the moments after a “mayday” call. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When rescuers were finally able to reach the trapped men, Barnes was unresponsive.

His tan turnout coat and pants had turned pitch black from the heat and the soot. His arms fell limp as four firefighters carried him headfirst down a ladder and onto a stretcher. Someone began chest compressions, and after a few minutes, Barnes was rushed by ambulance to Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, New Hampshire. But it was too late.

Manfredi later credited Barnes with saving his life, but has not spoken publicly about the fire.

EARLY RUMORS PROVE FALSE

State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said state investigators are working with federal agents to build a digital model of the building that burned Friday in Berwick in an effort to learn more about how the fire progressed. Staff photo by Jill Brady

More than a week after Barnes was killed and as hundreds of firefighters from Maine and around the country prepare to bury their fallen colleague in a massive memorial service Sunday at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, fire investigators are still poring over the rubble and searching for answers.

So far, no evidence collected has indicated the four-alarm fire is suspicious, and early rumors of someone manufacturing drugs inside the building are false, said Maine State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas.

Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are attempting to create a computer model of the fire to better understand its progression. State labor officials are examining Barnes’ gear to see if it functioned properly.

And detectives and fire investigators have painstakingly interviewed the dozens of firefighters, witnesses and other first responders who were on the scene that day to learn what they can about what happened. In all, fire companies from 17 communities responded, officials said.

But no one yet has publicly described what led to Barnes and Manfredi becoming trapped.

Also unknown is what exactly caused the flames inside unit 3L, a mystery that is especially painful to the woman who lived there.

Cathy Van Damme, 56, has lived in 3L for years with her daughter, who was at school when the fire broke out. Tremblay, who is Van Damme’s daughter’s boyfriend, had been staying with them for several weeks.

‘IT WAS CRAZY, TOTALLY CRAZY’

In an interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram last week, Van Damme said she awoke the morning of March 1 about 8:30 a.m., greeted Tremblay when he woke up around 9:30 and then left the apartment shortly after 10 a.m. to run an errand.

“I was going to Walmart,” she said.

There were no space heaters running, she hadn’t smoked any cigarettes, and no one had cooked anything on the stove, Van Damme said. Her apartment was calm.

She left around 10:15 a.m., and was in the store for about 30 minutes when a neighbor called in a panic.

On the other end of the line was Andreanna Politano, who has known Van Damme for years and lives across their shared parking lot on the first floor at 16 Jordan St.

Politano, 56, was home when she said she heard a police car scream around the corner and pull up in the parking lot. When Politano looked out of her front door, she saw smoke rising from the rear of the Van Dammes’ building.

Politano dialed her friend.

“She’s screaming, ‘Cathy, get home, your apartment’s on fire,’ something about my deck,” Van Damme said. As Van Damme drove home, she envisioned a small fire, something the firefighters had already taken care of.

“What I saw blew me away,” Van Damme said. “I saw flames coming out of the roof. I saw fire everywhere. It was crazy, totally crazy.”

‘IT HAPPENED SO FAST’

If the building on Bell street were an open book, the central shared stairwell would be the spine, with interior doors leading to apartments on either side. The back decks on the building used to be larger and connected mainly to units on the left side of the building, but most of the deck area was converted years ago into more living space, residents said.

Van Damme’s third-floor deck had two doors: one led into the shared central stairwell, and the other led directly into Van Damme’s living room.

In this screen capture from a video, firefighters battle a fire at 10 Bell Street in Berwick on March 1. (Screen capture from video by Mike Berube)

After Politano ran from her apartment and looked up at the back of the burning building, white smoke was billowing from a window. She said she saw someone throw a cloth-like object through the third-floor deck doorway. The object landed on the porch and burst into flames, with fire dripping through the floorboards to the level below.

Investigators have not commented on whether their interviews have confirmed Politano’s version of what she saw, but photos and a video of the fire show the flames spreading quickly and engulfing the back decks.

Also inside the building that day was Jennifer Kelleher, 46. Kelleher first moved into a first-floor unit at 10 Bell St. last year, but on March 1 she was moving her belongings up to a different unit on the third floor across from Van Damme’s apartment.

Kelleher said she made about three trips carrying up clothes and other items when she heard the fire alarm sound throughout the building. She came out onto the third-floor landing and saw thick, black smoke pouring from under the door to Van Damme’s unit.

“My only concern was if my other neighbors were out,” Kelleher said. She banged on Van Damme’s door, but the condition in the stairwell was worsening fast.

“I had to cover my face. I had to cover my eyes,” Kelleher said. “(The smoke) enveloped the building. It happened so fast.”

As she left the building, she saw a second-floor resident break the glass to get to a fire extinguisher.

Kelleher said she scooped up her dog and fled the building into the cold.

Crews from 17 communities in Maine and New Hampshire would rush to Berwick to help contain the fire as smoke rose above the small border town. The fire destroyed the third floor of the three-story apartment building. Four firefighters were injured and were treated and released from the hospital in Dover.

INDICATORS OF A ‘FLASHOVER’

The speed of the fire’s spread is not uncommon, said Thomas, the fire marshal. Modern home furnishings are largely derived from plastics, which are refined from petroleum products and inherently burn or melt.

As heat and flames intensify, objects near a fire heat up and begin to break down and give off gases in a process called pyrolysis. As the heat increases, the gases continue to fill whatever enclosed space they are in. If the fire heats those gases enough, they can almost simultaneously combust, filling a room with flames and heat that can top 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt the aluminum in a soda can or the copper on the face of a penny. It is among the most dangerous conditions for firefighters, who are taught to try to recognize the early indicators that a “flashover” might be coming.

Thomas stressed that flashover is a natural phenomenon that is likely to occur during any home fire that burns long enough unabated. It was still too early to know whether a flashover condition led to Barnes’ death, or if other factors were at play. More information is likely to be released in the coming week, he said.

Firefighters from Berwick and surrounding communities participate in a moment of silence for Berwick Fire Capt. Joel Barnes at exactly 10:57 Friday, a week after the call came in reporting the fire on Bell Street, where he was killed in the line of duty. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But the unanswered questions are gnawing at the residents of 10 Bell St., who wonder if they did anything wrong that day.

“I’ve been to the detective a couple times,” said Van Damme, who has been a jumble of nerves and stress since she lost all of her possessions in the fire. “God forbid, if this is on me, I have to live with it the rest of my life.”

The death has stirred deep feelings of gratitude and loss in the small town, where Barnes is remembered as a community-minded first responder who was dedicated to his work and drew meaning from helping others.

Black banners covered the raised metal lettering on the Berwick fire station. Black bands were strung from the utility poles outside the station, like the black bands that firefighters around the state have worn across their badges out of solidarity and mourning.

Inside the brick station, a sign in bright red letters is pinned to the rolling overhead door, the last message firefighters see before leaving the station. On Friday, it was the backdrop for the remaining Berwick Fire Department command staff as they hung their heads at 10:57 a.m. in a moment of silence, the same moment crews were called to Bell Street.

The banner reads: “Everyone goes home.”

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