March 25, 2013

Burned-out Augusta buildings razed as investigators scramble for answers

Investigation continues for cause of 146 Northern Ave. blaze

By Craig Crosby
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Investigators on Monday continued to look into a fire that destroyed a Northern Avenue apartment building last week even as contractors razed that structure and demolished two other city apartment buildings damaged by fires in recent months.

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An excavator razes an apartment building at 1 Penobscot St. in Augusta Monday The four-story building was destroyed by fire Jan. 29.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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Rob Gay carts a boiler mate from the remains of 146 Northern Ave. in Augusta Monday, as crews raze the apartment building destroyed by fire on Thursday. Scott Laliberte, proprietor of Riverside Disposal, said the building would be down and removed by Tuesday, with the foundation filled in. Gay and other heating contractors removed the heating system from the building, to be installed in another building.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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Sgt. Ken Grimes of the State Fire Marshal's Office said an investigation into Thursday's fire at 146 Northern Ave. had been delayed because marshals have responded to a spate of fires in recent days.

"We've been hopping from fire to fire," Grimes said.

He said investigators have more work to do both on the Northern Avenue blaze and a Sunday morning fire that destroyed a home and business in Mount Vernon. A local fire official has said that blaze is not considered suspicious. Grimes said it will take several more days to investigate the fires.

Meanwhile, the Northern Avenue building is one of three fire-damaged buildings across the city being torn down. August Code Enforcement Officer Gary Fuller said a four-story apartment building at 1 Penobscot St., which was damaged by a fire on Jan. 29, and a three-story apartment building at 55 Sewall St., which burned Jan. 10, were also both in the process of being razed and removed.

Fuller said the city asked the owner of the Northern Avenue building, James Pepin, to remove the building as quickly as possible because of fears the standing building remnants might collapse. The owners made the decision to tear down the Sewall and Penobscot street buildings, Fuller said.

Fuller said the city only asks for buildings to be torn down when they pose a threat to safety.

"They were damaged beyond what the owners wanted" to fix, he said.

Investigators determined the Penobscot Street fire started on the fourth floor, but have been unable to determine a cause. The Sewall Street fire was reportedly caused by improperly disposed of smoking material.

Fuller said plans are being drawn to replace the Sewall Street apartment building. He was unsure of future plans of the Penobscot Street site, but said the owners kept the foundation in case they decide to rebuild.

Jim Pepin, owner of the Northern Avenue building, has not returned phone calls seeking comment. Fuller, however, said Pepin has indicated he plans to rebuild on the site.

Scott Laliberte, owner of Augusta-based Riverside Disposal, which is tearing down the Northern Avenue building, said he has been told to backfill the basement.

"We'll have it cleaned up at the end of the day," Laliberte said Monday.

Grimes said last week that the Northern Avenue fire started in a first-floor rear apartment, but on Monday he clarified that the fire actually started in a first-floor front apartment.

Edward Cleary, one of two people home when the fire broke out shortly before 3 p.m. Thursday, has been staying at area motels since the fire. He said he has lined up a new apartment in another community.

Cleary, who had no renter's insurance, said he is starting over with just a few personal belongings he was able to collect after the fire. He said he lived in the first-floor, rear apartment for 10 years.

Cleary said his apartment had a smoke alarm that he had unplugged to keep it from sounding when he cooked. He said he opened his front door to check when he heard the fire.

"There wasn't any smoke in the apartment until I opened the front door to put the fire out," Cleary said. "The fire was fully going before there was any smoke in my apartment."

Cleary said he tried to douse the blaze with a fire extinguisher but the fire was too intense.

"It was a lost cause at that point," he said. "All I had time to do was drop the extinguisher and grab my wallet."

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

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Additional Photos

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An excavator sits next to the debris from an apartment building that was razed over the weekend at 55 Sewall St. in in Augusta Monday. The four-story building was destroyed by fire Jan. 10.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy


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