On some nights, when his mind races and he can’t fall asleep, Paul Garrido flashes back to last Nov. 1 and hears the screams.
He awoke that morning startled and disoriented, inside a room rapidly filling with smoke. He looked to the front door, but it was blocked by flames, so he raced up the stairs to find another way out. As he barreled down the darkening hallway toward a bedroom where he would escape out the window, he pounded his fist on the walls to alert the others.
REMEMBERING THE VICTIMS
The fire victims will be remembered at a service that begins at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in Longfellow Park, 10 Longfellow St., Portland.
“I tried to turn back, but my eyes were burning. I couldn’t breathe. The smoke was so thick,” he said, his voice wavering with emotion. “I’m always going to feel that sense of guilt and regret for not getting them out.”
It’s been one year since fire leveled a three-story building on Noyes Street in Portland’s Oakdale neighborhood, killing six men and women, none of whom had reached their 30th birthday.
David Bragdon Jr., Christopher Conlee, Nicole Finlay, Maelisha Jackson and Ashley Thomas were all trapped inside and died from smoke inhalation. Steven Summers escaped but suffered burns on 98 percent of his body. He died four days later at a Boston hospital.
Nicole Finlay, Noyes St. fire victim
The blaze was Maine’s deadliest in three decades and has left a lasting mark on Portland. Safety violations that came to light spurred the city to confront its lack of oversight over rental housing. Blame has been directed most at landlord Gregory Nisbet, who has been sued by all six families and faces manslaughter charges in what is believed to be the first case in Maine in which a landlord has been accused of causing deaths deemed accidental because he didn’t do enough to ensure safety.
Meanwhile, the victims’ family members and friends, the firefighters who were at the scene and the survivors are all just trying to move on.
Lisa LeConte Mazziotti, Finlay’s mother, has been attending a grief support group for parents who have lost children. The whole experience defies the natural order that says parents should not outlive their children. Mazziotti said the sessions have helped, though her pain doesn’t go away. She feels it every time she drives into Portland.
Debbie Jackson, who adopted Maelisha at age 11, replays the memories of her last days with her daughter. It was five weeks before the fire when she drove down from Ellsworth for a visit.
“She was … just really excited about her future,” Jackson said.
Ashley Summers, who lost her husband and the father of her two young daughters, said she breaks down occasionally but tries to stay strong for her grieving children.
“That’s been the most difficult thing as a mother, not being able to take that pain away,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s like to not have my dad.” She paused to hold back her tears. “And he was such a great dad.”
David Foster, who worked with Bragdon at The Great Lost Bear, a popular local restaurant on Forest Avenue, and knew Finlay and Summers well, said his circle of friends and co-workers all think about that night but rarely talk about it.
“I think people still haven’t really dealt with it,” he said. “I know I haven’t.”
Keith Gautreau, an assistant Portland fire chief who was in charge of the scene that day, said last Nov. 1 was the sort of incident firefighters train for and he’s proud of how they handled it. But there is no real training for what it’s like to carry a lifeless body from fire remains.
“Does it stay with you? Absolutely,” he said.
Garrido, who lives in Rockland and works at the Maine State Prison, knows that, but for a little luck, he could have been a victim, too. Still, all he can think about is the people he couldn’t save.
“One thing that sticks with me, that’s hard to get past, is remembering going down the hallway trying to get out and just hearing the women screaming, knowing there was nothing I could do,” he said. “How do you forget that?”
Christopher Conlee, Noyes St. fire victim
FRANTIC ATTEMPTS TO ESCAPE
Nathan Long was the first to wake, not to the sound of fire alarms but to his alarm clock, which was set for 7 a.m. By then, a discarded cigarette on the front porch had been smoldering for hours before igniting other materials and spreading flames into the building. Long started yelling and looking for a way out.
The two-unit apartment building at 20-24 Noyes St., which operated more or less as a rooming house, was full of people – five tenants who lived there and four guests who had crashed there on Halloween night.
Long, along with Kyle Bozeman, a tenant who had recently moved in, and Garrido, a guest of Bragdon, tried to escape down a back staircase from the second floor but it was blocked. They went out through a window instead, onto the porch roof and down to safety. Long didn’t have time to put clothes on.
Summers awoke to a flame-filled room and then caught fire himself while trying to flee. He was still wearing his Halloween costume. He jumped out a second-story window while engulfed in flames. A witness saw him rolling around in the road. Garrido used his coat to put out the remaining flames. Summers had burns everywhere except his feet but survived for another four days.
“Seeing him right after, all his pigment had burned off. His skin was ash. It was a hard thing to see,” Garrido said. “I could tell he was in pain and shock.”
Jackson, who lived in Topsham, was visiting her friend Finlay. According to court documents, “investigators found her fully clothed body in a shower stall in a second-floor bathroom.” She was lying in the fetal position and holding towels over her head and face, likely to prevent the smoke from filling her lungs.
Debbie Jackson doesn’t like to think about the way her daughter was taken out of this world. She doesn’t like to think about the fear she must have felt, or the pain.
“It’s only just starting to get a little easier,” she said.
Finlay and Thomas were trapped on the third floor, which had no secondary exit. Conlee lived in a nearby apartment but had spent that night at the Noyes Street apartment, where he knew several tenants.
Bragdon was found near a second-story window. He was likely trying to escape but ran out of time.
Foster, his friend and co-worker, had stopped by the Noyes Street apartment on Halloween night. When he got a call the next morning, he didn’t believe it.
“When I got to the scene, no one knew anything, but we knew it wasn’t good,” he said.
Gautreau, the assistant fire chief, said the hardest decision he had to make was telling his firefighters to pull back, to stop trying to save whoever was left inside.
“They did everything they could possibly do to get in there. They went as far as they could,” he said. “We always do a risk-benefit. When we’re willing to risk a lot is when we believe there is someone viable inside, someone we can save. What we know now is that staying in any longer would not have made the result any different.”
David Bragdon Jr., Noyes St. fire victim.
BLAME CAST AT CITY, LANDLORD
Soon after the victims were identified, the story of the Noyes Street fire shifted quickly. How could something like this have happened?
According to court documents, there were no working smoke detectors inside the building and some of the rooms did not have alternative exits. One of the main exits was blocked by a bookcase.
Nisbet, the building’s owner, quickly came under criticism.
Matthew Nichols, Nisbet’s attorney in the criminal case, said his client was fond of all his tenants and has been devastated since the fire.
“There has been a target on his back from the get-go, and … he’s been unable to reach out to family members, so that hasn’t made things easier,” Nichols said.
The landlord was offered a plea deal but rejected it because he doesn’t believe he caused the deaths of his tenants. Nichols said Nisbet had installed the required smoke detectors, but current and former tenants disabled them.
“Even if he’s exonerated, there is still going to be tremendous emotional impact on him,” Nichols said. “Owning a building and having six people die in a fire … that’s a wound that will probably never be healed.”
The six wrongful death lawsuits, which have been consolidated into one case, are on hold pending resolution of the criminal charges against Nisbet.
Although Nisbet has been the biggest target, the city endured blame, too, for not keeping up with its inspection program, which might have forced Nisbet or the tenants, or both, to make sure exits were clear and smoke detectors were installed and in working order.
Portland leaders have adopted new policy changes out of the Noyes Street ashes, including the creation of a new housing officer whose job is to ensure the safety of rental housing going forward.
Gautreau said fire officials had recognized several months before the fire that they needed to “revamp and reboot” the department’s inspection program. After Nov. 1, 2014, that process was fast-tracked.
Ashley Thomas, Noyes St. fire victim.
Portland City Manager Jon Jennings hadn’t yet started his new job a year ago but said the link between the tragedy and a renewed focus on housing safety in Portland was logical.
“This is of the highest priorities for me,” he said. “I think my greatest responsibility is to make sure people are protected.”
Other communities are working to avoid a similar tragedy. The city of Westbrook has increased oversight of its rental properties and town leaders in Brunswick recently began exploring changes to its housing inspection program, citing the Noyes Street fire as a reason to act.
But changes won’t come easy. In Portland, the housing stock is old and increasingly out of compliance with modern safety regulations and standards. And the city has more than 17,000 rental units, which means that backlogs for inspections are inevitable.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see something like this happen again, but I also wouldn’t want anyone to think that we can prevent all future tragedies,” Jennings said.
Foster, who lives on Deane Street less than a mile from Noyes Street, said his landlord came to his apartment the day after the fire to check smoke detectors. He knows several other landlords who did the same thing.
“I’m glad there have been changes, but it shouldn’t have cost six lives,” Foster said. “All the politics and the blame, it doesn’t change the fact that we lost six really great people.”
All that’s left of 20-24 Noyes St. is its stone and concrete foundation and about 5 feet of brick chimney. Charred black fragments of wood and broken glass, hidden partially by fallen leaves. A temporary fence that serves little purpose.
The remains, nestled in a busy neighborhood just a block off Forest Avenue, seem frozen in time – a solemn, if morbid, reminder.
Steven Summers, Noyes St. fire victim.
On Sunday, many will gather in Longfellow Park, just a short walk from that site, for a memorial.
Finlay’s mother, Mazziotti, said she plans to attend and say a few words about her daughter, hard as it might be. Debbie Jackson plans to speak as well and said she’s looking forward to meeting some of the family members whom she knows only by name. Ashley Summers has been a spokeswoman for the victims’ families for most of the last year. She’s been heavily involved in planning the memorial.
“It’s given me something to … not look forward to … but a way to bring something positive,” she said, “to give something back to families instead of revisiting all those horrible images.”
“It doesn’t get easier. The first five or 10 times I went by the house, I always pulled over, said a few words. Usually, it was, ‘I’m sorry.’ It was all I could manage to say.”
The goal of the memorial is to celebrate the lives of six young people who were bound by tragedy.
Each of the victims was just starting out in life.
Bragdon was working toward becoming an electrician like his father. One day, perhaps, he would take over his father’s business in Rockland.
Thomas, with her best friend and business partner Mat Garber, was beginning to see the rewards of a wedding photography business. She was living her dream.
Conlee was working several jobs, trying to find a niche in the music industry. He was the life of the party wherever he went.
Mazziotti still struggles to accept that she’ll never get to find out what her daughter might have become had she lived. A professional dancer? A wife? A mother?
“There are just so many things, so many life moments, I’ll never get to see,” she said.
Jackson said her daughter, who had a difficult childhood that included being in state custody for a time, was, at age 23, just “starting to figure her life out.”
Summers said she knows her husband would have done great things, too, and wishes her daughters could have seen that.
Garrido, one of three people who survived the fire, doesn’t just live with the guilt of not being able to save others. One of the victims, Steven Summers, was his best friend.
The foundation is all that remains at the fenced-in lot on Noyes St. in Portland where six people lost their lives in a fire in 2014. Photographed Tuesday, October 27, 2015. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
Garrido has to work Sunday and can’t attend the memorial. It’s just as well. He said he’s been working between 80 and 100 hours a week, not because he needs the money but to stay busy.
“I keep saying I’ll go talk to a therapist, and I will,” Garrido said. “I know there is no good sitting around moping, because you don’t get back that time. But it’s hard. I just have to readjust the gears. I don’t know how long that takes.”
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