Nov 2, 2014 12:37 AM

After Maine fire, questions about victims, cause

The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) After an intense blaze tore through a two-apartment house near the University of Southern Maine, killing five people and critically injuring another, investigators returned to the scene Sunday hunting for clues to the cause of the state's deadliest fire in three decades.

In a heavy, wet snow, police and fire investigators moved in and out of what remained of the three-story building. The road was still blocked off and a memorial had sprung up that included flowers and a pumpkin.

Even as the cause of the fire and identity of the victims remained a mystery, officials had sorted out one element of confusion by the end of Saturday, a day that sent ripples of anxiety and sorrow through the campus and the city of Portland: Everyone who had been in the house was accounted for.

State fire marshal's spokesman Steve McCausland said most, if not all, the residents of the 94-year-old house were USM students, but he said there was no indication that students were killed in the fire.

By Sunday night, the fire marshal's office was still working on positive identifications for the five who died. McCausland said the office also continued to work on the cause of the blaze and would be joined Monday by federal investigators.

McCausland identified the injured victim as 29-year-old Steven Summers of Rockland, and said Summers was visiting friends at the house when the fire broke out. There were reports that he jumped out of a second-story window to escape the flames. Summers was in Massachusetts General Hospital on Sunday, where he was being treated for severe burns.

David Bragdon Sr. of Rockland feared his son, 27-year-old David Bragdon Jr., was among the victims. The younger Bragdon lived in the home, worked at the nearby Great Lost Bear restaurant and hasn't been heard from since the fire.

Bragdon, his eyes filling with tears, talked to reporters outside the house, saying: "Is it true? Is it real? It's hard not knowing 100 percent."

He said he has questions about the condition of the house, including whether smoke alarms were working.

Portland Fire Chief Jerry LaMoria said the investigation was in a preliminary stage and it could take several days before officials know how the fire started. Investigators will be looking to see if there were any code violations at the house.

Carol Schiller, who lives near the home and is president of the University Neighborhood Organization, said she woke up Saturday morning to loud popping sounds and looked outside her window to see a man engulfed in flames.

"He was making some sounds, probably screaming," Schiller said. "I saw him rolling on the ground and then it clicked, 'Oh my god, he's on fire.'"

Schiller said she wrote a letter to the city in May expressing concern about the condition of the home. She said there were often many garbage bags left on the porch and she feared there were too many people living in the house.

The mood in the neighborhood was solemn Sunday as friends, family members and strangers stopped by to see the destroyed home and leave flowers.

"It's feels like you're walking around a grave site," said Jackie Reis, a 27-year-old USM graduate who lives down the street.

Reis said she didn't know the people who lived there personally but saw them frequently and they were always friendly.

The old house looked messy and needed repairs, but "it didn't seem like anyone was being reckless," she said.

Two bodies were found on the second floor and three on the third floor.

Another person who was injured was treated at a hospital and released; seven people escaped from the burning building. University President David Flanagan said at least one of the people who escaped was a student.

The fire, Maine's deadliest since a 1984 blaze killed five in Hartland, ripped a hole through the roof of the house and both apartment units were badly burned. The neighborhood is a dense, residential area of single and multi-family homes where full-time residents and students live.

The Portland Press Herald reported the house is owned by Gregory Nisbet. A phone number listed in his name was out of service and nobody answered the door at his home on Sunday.


Associated Press writer Patrick Whittle contributed to this report.


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