The roses on the corner of Noyes and Freeman streets are still pink, made more vibrant by the brown and orange leaves that have fallen around them. The bushes survived the fire that killed six people here seven years ago.

The flowers are both a sign of life and a reminder of what used to be on this vacant lot.

The blaze ripped through the duplex at 20 Noyes St. in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2014. A group of young people were asleep after celebrating Halloween the night before. Officials said the fire was caused by improperly discarded smoking materials placed in a plastic receptacle that melted and ignited the front porch. A lack of functioning smoke detectors contributed to the deaths of Ashley Thomas, 29; David Bragdon Jr., 27; Maelisha Jackson, 23; Christopher Conlee, 25; Nicole “Nikki” Finlay, 26, and Steven Summers, 29, who survived the fire but later died of his burns.

Victims of the Noyes Street fire. Top row, from left: Ashley Thomas, David Bragdon, Maelisha Jackson. Bottom row, from left: Christopher Conlee, Nikki Finlay, Steven Summers. Photos courtesy of their families

It was the state’s deadliest fire in four decades.

The landlord, Gregory Nisbet, was charged with six counts of manslaughter. He was acquitted of those charges, but found guilty of a fire code violation for not having a second means of escape for tenants in a third-floor bedroom. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, apparently the first time a Maine landlord had received jail time for a misdemeanor code violation.

Nisbet sold the property in 2018. The new owners told the Portland Press Herald at the time that they wanted to be respectful of its significance, and they have spent nearly more than three years since then working on their plans for a new duplex.

Work on the site began this fall. The dilapidated foundation that remained even after the blackened house itself was demolished is gone. A tall fence surrounds the lot, and five pumpkins sit at its base along Freeman Street. One is carved “RMBR NOYES.” Another, “SMILES 4 NOYES.”

Where the house once stood is a hole.

For the families who lost loved ones, the hole is permanent.

The new owners of 20 Noyes St. have posted a sign on the fence around the site of the deadly 2014 fire, explaining the reason for the fence and inviting people to continue to leave memorial items for those lost in the blaze. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Christopher Conlee came from a small town in Massachusetts, and his mother, Kathy Conlee, said he was “enthralled by Portland and all it had to offer.” He lived in the neighborhood, on Oakdale Street, and was visiting the house on Noyes Street that night.

“Having the new owners build on the Noyes Street property brings up many emotions that are difficult to describe,” Kathy Conlee wrote in an email. “I do think it will help the neighbors move forward from a daily reminder of that tragedy. I don’t know what the new owners have planned, however. I hope the new building brings some sunshine and a warm feeling to Noyes Street for all.”

PAINFUL REMINDERS

David Bragdon Sr. lives in Rockland and doesn’t visit Portland often. But when he does, he drives by the place where his son lived and died, and he sits in the nearby park where a bench bears the name father and son shared. But he says he doesn’t need to go there to remember David Bragdon Jr. because he thinks about him everywhere.

“I hope they’re able to find happiness there,” he said of the current owners of 20 Noyes St. “That spot for me isn’t a very happy spot.”

Bragdon said the site also reminds him that the death of his son and his friends could have been prevented. He blames Nisbet for the way he managed the building, and he hopes Portland is keeping up with the reforms it promised to prevent future tragedies. After the fire, the city set up a new Housing Safety Office, hired more inspectors and required landlords to register their units.

“We could have had some lives saved,” Bragdon said.

For the neighbors, the hole has been a place of neglect.

People who live nearby have complained about overgrown vegetation and, most recently, rats found in the foundation. Nate Creswell, who moved into his multifamily home on Noyes Street six months before the fatal fire, described it as derelict.

“It’s hard to see that every time you go by,” Creswell said.

A memorial recognizing the six lives lost in the Noyes Street fire on Nov. 1, 2014, is decorated with flowers in Longfellow Park near the fire site. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

In 2019, at the public urging of Lisa LeConte Mazziotti, whose daughter Nicole Finlay died in the fire, the city installed a memorial at nearby Longfellow Park on Noyes Street. A granite marker bears a bronze plaque that pays tribute to the lives lost. A bouquet of fresh purple and yellow flowers rested on the stone Monday. Each of the six benches that were placed there is dedicated to one of the victims.

SPACE FOR REFLECTION

“The benches in Longfellow Park are named in honor of these young people whose lives ended too soon,” the plaque reads. “They help provide a place for reflection in this green space – a place where people can sit and listen to the birds, enjoy a bit of sunshine on a nice day and for new memories to take root.”

Carol Schiller can see the site of the fire from the kitchen window of her home on Longfellow Street, where she has lived for more than 30 years. Her husband died when their children were still young, and the grassy triangle across the street became a place of solace for her.

She still sees Longfellow Park that way. The benches, the memorial stone, the linden tree all create space for quiet reflection. The park that contains them offers room for gathering, whether for family picnics or neighborhood movie nights.

Schiller is the founder of the University Neighborhood Organization, which hosts an annual Halloween fire prevention festival in the park (though this year, because of rain, it moved to a gymnasium at the University of Southern Maine). That event is meant to bring the community together to celebrate and to share safety information that could prevent future heartbreak.

Schiller remembers her young neighbors before their names were on memorial plaques, when they played music and held parties and took a small dog to the park. She likes to think they would have joined in the events she now hosts there.

Carol Schiller, founder of Portland’s University Neighborhood Organization, talks Saturday with Gorham fire inspector Charles Jarrett and Portland Fire Department Advanced EMT Jeff Goodness during the organization’s annual Halloween fire prevention festival at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham. That event is meant to bring the community together to celebrate and to share safety information that could prevent future heartbreak. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

“The last thing we would want is the park to be stagnant, to be a haunting place,” Schiller said.

NEW BEGINNINGS

The site’s owners say they, too, want to turn the hole back into a home.

Mindy Fox and Stephen Hoffman bought the property in 2018 when they moved from New York to Maine. They heard about the site through a friend, even though it was not listed for sale. Fox, a writer and producer in food media, and Hoffman, an architect, have been renting on nearby Coyle Street while they have made plans for the new building.

In emails, Fox described what is planned as a gabled two-family house, in keeping with the architecture of the neighborhood. They hope to move in next year. Fox said she and Hoffman have come to know and love the neighborhood for its quiet nature, nearby walking paths and small businesses.

In years past, people left carved pumpkins and painted rocks on the foundation inside the property line, especially around the anniversary of the fire. On the new construction fence, the couple have posted a sign that invites people to continue to leave such mementos.

“We recognize that this season, and particularly this month, is a sacred time of remembrance,” says the message within a red heart. “We acknowledge and honor your grief and loss. With compassion and gratitude, in this moment of new beginning, we offer our intention to bring joy, care and stewardship to this corner, and that peace and love be the cornerstone and foundation of this new home.”

Fox said the couple will save the rose bushes and replant them when the new house is complete as a private gesture of remembrance.

“These survived the fire, and possibly date to the time when the original house was first built (in 1920),” she wrote. “To us they are a beautiful symbol of resiliency and the continuity of life.”

Even on the first day of November, the roses still bloom.

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