So far, only roses remain at the site of one of Maine’s deadliest fires
The roses at the corner of Noyes and Freeman streets are always pink, made more vibrant by the brown and orange leaves that have fallen around them. The bushes survived the blaze that killed six people here seven years ago.
The flowers are both a sign of life and a reminder of what once was on this wasteland.
The fire ravaged the duplex at 20, rue Noyes in the early morning hours of November 1, 2014. A group of young people were sleeping after having celebrated Halloween the day before. Officials said the fire was caused by improperly discarded smoking materials placed in a plastic container that melted and ignited the porch. A lack of working smoke detectors contributed to the death of 29-year-old Ashley Thomas; David Bragdon Jr., 27; Maelisha Jackson, 23; Christopher Conlee, 25; Nicole “Nikki” Finlay, 26, and Steven Summers, 29, who survived the blaze but later died from her burns.
It was the state’s deadliest fire in four decades.
The owner, Gregory Nisbet, has been charged with six counts of manslaughter. He was acquitted of the charges but found guilty of violating the fire code for not having a second escape route for tenants in a room on the third floor. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, apparently the first time a landlord in Maine has been sentenced to jail for violating the misdemeanor code.
Nisbet sold the property in 2018. The new owners told the Portland Press Herald at the time that they wanted to respect its importance, and they have since spent nearly three years working on their plans for a new duplex.
Work on the site began this fall. The dilapidated foundations that remained even after the blackened house was demolished are gone. A high fence surrounds the grounds and five pumpkins sit at its base along Freeman Street. One is engraved “RMBR NOYES”. Another, “SMILES 4 NOYES”.
Where the house once stood, there is a hole.
For families who have lost loved ones, the hole is permanent.
Christopher Conlee was from a small town in Massachusetts, and his mother, Kathy Conlee, said he was “captivated by Portland and all it has to offer.” He lived in the neighborhood, on Oakdale Street, and was visiting the Noyes Street house that night.
“The fact that the new owners are building on the Noyes Street property arouses a lot of emotions that are difficult to describe,” Kathy Conlee wrote in an email. “I think it will help the neighbors move on from a daily reminder of this tragedy. However, I don’t know what the new owners have planned. I hope the new building will bring some sunshine and a warm atmosphere to Noyes Street for all.
David Bragdon Sr. lives in Rockland and does not visit Portland often. But when he does, he walks past where his son lived and died, and he sits in the nearby park where a bench is named after the father and son shared. But he says he doesn’t have to go there to remember David Bragdon Jr. because he thinks of him everywhere.
“I hope they can find what they are looking for there,” he said of the current owners of 20, rue Noyes. “This place for me is not a very happy place.
Bragdon said the site also reminded him that the deaths of his son and friends could have been avoided. He blames Nisbet for the way he handled the building, and he hopes Portland follows promised reforms to avoid future tragedies. After the fire, the city set up a new housing security office, hired more inspectors and required landlords to register their homes.
“We could have saved lives,” Bragdon said.
For the neighbors, the hole has been a place of neglect.
People who live nearby have complained about invasive vegetation and, more recently, rats found in the foundation. Nate Creswell, who moved into her multi-family home on Noyes Street six months before the fatal fire, called her abandoned.
“It’s hard to see every time you pass,” Creswell said.
In 2019, at the public request 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 homage to the lives lost. A bouquet of fresh purple and yellow flowers rested on the stone on Monday. Each of the six benches placed there is dedicated to one of the victims.
“The benches at Longfellow Park are named after 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, soak up some sun on a beautiful day and for new memories to take root.”
Carol Schiller can see the fire site from the kitchen window of her Longfellow Street home, where she has lived for over 30 years. Her husband passed away when their children were still young, and the grassy triangle across the street became a place of comfort for her.
She always sees Longfellow Park that way. The benches, the memorial stone, the lime tree all create a space for quiet reflection. The park that contains them offers a gathering space, 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 (although this year, due to the rain, he moved to a southern University gymnasium. of Maine). This event aims to bring the community together to celebrate and share safety information that could prevent future heartaches.
Schiller remembers his young neighbors before their names were on commemorative plaques, when they played music, threw parties and took a small dog to the park. She likes to think that they would have joined the events she is hosting there now.
“The last thing we would want is for the park to stagnate, to be a haunting place,” Schiller said.
The owners of the site say they too want to turn the hole into a house.
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, rented out nearby Coyle Street while they planned the new building.
In emails, Fox has described what is planned as a two-family gabled 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 trails, and small businesses.
In the past, people left carved pumpkins and painted stones on the foundations inside the property line, especially around the anniversary of the fire. On the new construction fence, the couple displayed a sign urging people to continue to leave such memories.
“We recognize that this season, and especially this month, is a sacred time of remembrance,” reads the message in a red heart. “We recognize and honor your grief and loss. With compassion and gratitude, at this time of fresh start, we offer our intention to bring joy, care and stewardship to this corner, and may peace and love be the cornerstone and foundation of this new house.
Fox said the couple will save the rose bushes and replant them when the new home is complete, as a private remembrance gesture.
“These survived the fire and may date from when the original house was first built (in 1920),” she wrote. “For us, they are a beautiful symbol of resilience and continuity of life. “
Even on the first day of November, the roses are still blooming.
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