Nov. 1, 2014: Friends of a victim of a fatal apartment building fire console each other in Portland, Maine. (AP)
PORTLAND, Maine – After an intense blaze tore through an apartment house near the University of Maine, killing five people and critically injuring another, investigators were back at 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, police and fire 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: Everybody 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 said there was no indication that students were killed in the fire.
Portland Fire Chief Jerry LaMoria said the investigation was in a preliminary stage and 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.
Two bodies were found on the second floor and three on the third floor.
Carol Schiller, president of the University Neighborhood Association who lives near the home where the fire occurred, 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.
Anxious students spent the day trying to get information about what happened.
"Everyone is just trying to find out if their friends are hurt," said Sam Hill, the editor of the university's paper.
A few students visited the student union where Red Cross workers offered counseling and comfort. As they came and went, students hugged each other; some cried.
"It's definitely kind of a shock that something like this could happen so close to home," said Joshua Dodge, a student Senate member. "If students were involved, these are people we see every day."
One person suffered severe burns and jumped from a second-story window. He was reported in critical condition in the burn unit of a Boston hospital, McCausland said. A second person was treated and released from a hospital; seven people escaped from the burning building.
University President David Flanagan said at least one of the people who escaped was a student.
Damien Croxford of South Portland was driving through the area on his way to work when he saw the house in flames and the entire neighborhood cloaked in smoke. He said he found a badly burned person lying in the street breathing and conscious after he called 911.
Croxford said the heat from the fire was so intense that he had to back away from the scene.
"It's going to stay with me for a long time," he said.
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.
Nathan Long, who said he woke up to the smell of smoke when his alarm clock went off, told the Portland Press Herald that he didn't hear any fire alarms going off. He yelled "fire!" and ran to the back of the house, where another person was opening a window. They both jumped onto a porch roof, then to the ground, where he saw the badly burned body of another person.
"I feel pretty lucky. I'm kind of numb," Long told the newspaper. He said he lived with four other people and that he didn't know the fate of his roommates beyond the one with whom he escaped.
Investigators have interviewed all the people who escaped and are still working to identify the victims.
The neighborhood is a dense, residential area of single and multi-family homes where full-time residents and students live.
The Press Herald reported the house is owned by Gregory Nisbet. A phone number listed in his name was out of service Saturday and nobody answered the door at his home.