SKOWHEGAN —  A raging fire tore through an 11-unit apartment building Thursday on Water Street as firefighters evacuated tenants and rescued terrified cats.

The fire was reported about 11 a.m. at 378 Water St., at the corner of Cardinal Avenue and diagonally across the street from Coburn Park. Sixteen tenants were displaced and the American Red Cross was called to help them with lodging, according to Skowhegan fire Chief Shawn Howard.

Howard said at 3:30 p.m. that the fire was out and the state fire marshal’s office was at the scene, helping to determine the cause of the fire. He said the back section of the building might be salvageable, though he was not sure about the front section, which faces Water Street.

One tenant was taken to the hospital to be evaluated and a firefighter suffered a minor cat bite and was being treated, Howard said.

Around 11:30 a.m., fire engulfed the second floor of the three-story building and flames blew out of windows as firefighters from 12 towns battled the blaze.

Tenants poured out of the building and congregated in a parking lot off Cardinal Street, where a strong wind whipped sand about. Some tenants were walking around, crying as others sought to comfort them and help place their rescued animals in vehicles.

Rachelle Clukey, 28, was shrieking and wailing, as her son, Rylan Clukey, 7, sat in the back seat of a vehicle, sobbing as he watched the building burn. Rachelle Clukey, a single mother, said they lost everything in their second-floor apartment, which the fire destroyed.

“Oh, my God, my whole apartment is trashed. It’s gone,” she said later.

Tenants Chris Linn and Belinda Nichols comfort each other Thursday as fire destroys the apartment building where they lived at 378 Water St. in Skowhegan. Several area departments fought the fire. Sixteen tenants were left homeless, but several cats were rescued from the fire. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Clukey said she was eating in her living room just before the fire broke out and thought she saw something blow up and hit the side of the building.

“I looked out the window and saw what looked like siding on the ground,” she said. “The wind was bad. It was so loud, like an electric boom. My neighbor said, ‘There’s massive water rushing through my apartment and it’s filled with smoke.'”

Clukey, who works from home and lost her home office, as well as all the materials she had purchased to home-school her child, said some neighbors reported a huge bolt of electricity from a transformer atop a pole hit the building before the fire broke out. She said she and her son grabbed her Maine coon cat, Gizmo, 10; put it in a duffel bag; seized their white, 1-year-old terrier mix dog, Hunnit; and ran out of the building.

One woman standing in the parking lot fainted as people scrambled to find her help. She eventually stood with help from an emergency worker, shaking and trembling.

Tenants and firefighters rush to the aid of Cindy Spofford, who collapsed Thursday while fire was ravaging a large apartment building at 378 Water St. in Skowhegan. Several area departments fought the fire. Sixteen tenants were left homeless, but several cats were rescued. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Later, a firefighter carried a wet and bedraggled gray cat from the building and spectators gave him a blanket to wrap the feline in. Neighbors said the cat belonged to the woman who had collapsed earlier. The firefighter, who had blood on his hand, asked a neighbor if the cat had had its shots.

Huddled in a blanket, Belinda Nichols, 43, watched with her boyfriend, Chris Linn, as their third-floor apartment burned. That apartment was destroyed, Howard said later.

Linn, 40, said that before the fire started, some siding tore off the building in the wind and was making a banging sound, so he called the landlord. Nichols recalled hearing a loud bang.

“We saw a big, huge spark and a loud bang, and the next thing you know, everyone’s like, ‘Get out! Fire!'” she said.

They grabbed their 2-year-old cat, Miss Jasper, a gray tiger coon cat, and fled the apartment, they said.

“I’ve never been through anything like this before,” Linn said. “It’s my first day off in over three weeks. This is not the way I wanted to spend it. I cook at The Big Apple, Chester Chicken. I’ve already called my boss. I’ve called my people. I need to call my mother.”

A Skowhegan firefighter lays down a cat rescued Thursday from the apartment building at 378 Water St. in Skowhegan that was damaged severely by fire. Earlier, firefighters rescued the cat, which belongs to tenant Rachelle Clukey, background. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Nichols said the couple lost everything except the clothes on their backs.

Skowhegan fire Chief Shawn Howard was busy directing the scene but took a moment to report it was too early to identify what had caused the fire and or determine whether the building was destroyed.

He said firefighters had been answering a different call Thursday morning, spotted flames coming from the Water Street apartment building roof and reported the blaze. Those firefighters helped evacuate the tenants, he said.

“We made two rescues — two people in first-floor apartments,” he said. “They just needed help getting out.”

Howard said there was heavy fire on the second and third floors of the building.

A tearful Roxanne Allen, 58, said she lives on the first floor in the back of the building and was worried about her 15-year-old cat, Tigger, a small white, brown and black cat. She said she was in her apartment and unaware there was a fire when she looked out of her window and firefighters told her to get out immediately.

“I said, ‘I’m trying to get Tigger,’ and they said she’s probably hiding. They just kept telling me to leave. I lost Tigger’s brother, Morris, an orange tabby, in August.”

Skowhegan police and Central Maine Power Co. workers arrived at the scene and police blocked off part of Water Street. Firefighters from Skowhegan, Athens, Fairfield, Madison, Canaan, Solon, Norridgewock, Oakland, Clinton, Pittsfield, Anson and St. Albans responded to the fire report, according to Howard.

“It was a stubborn fire that took a lot of mutual aid, and we were thankful to have those area towns provide assistance for us,” he said.

He said he was not sure if the building was insured.

Jane Fortier, of nearby East Leavitt Street, said she had an Advanced 1 cleaning crew at her home before the fire broke out, and they told her they heard an explosion and asked her to call CMP and the Fire Department. Fortier said the crew told her a piece of siding on the apartment building was flapping and struck a transformer.

The building at 378 Water St. was the scene of a fire in October 2015 that authorities determined was set. A tenant, Peter E. Gary, was charged with arson in connection with the blaze. In December 2017, Gary, then 65, was found guilty of the charge and given a 10-year Department of Corrections sentence, with all but two years suspended. He was also sentenced to four years of probation and ordered to pay $2,500 in restitution.

 

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

 

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