By A.M. Sheehan
Editor’s Note: On May 21 fire broke out at the Oxford Meadows apartment complex, in Oxford. Theresa Heino, 85, died as a result of the fire and Virginia Brown, 65, was hospitalized in critical condition. Brown has since been released.
OXFORD — Oxford County Regional Communications Center Dispatcher Candice Jack got the call at 1:47 a.m. There was a fire at Oxford Meadows.
The resident who made the call was very afraid. Jack stayed on the phone with her for 19 minutes until firefighters were able to get to her apartment door and make contact with her to direct her from the facility.
Jack spoke gently and instructed her on little things she could do to protect herself until help arrived, like a wet towel in front of the door and a wet washcloth to cover her mouth.
Lt. Mike Ward of the Oxford Police Department heard the fire department tones at 1:47 a.m.
Ward knew Oxford Meadows housed many elderly people. He was there in seconds.
“I saw smoke coming out under the eaves … not a good sign,” he recalls. “The exterior alarms were going, lights flashing, and a resident yelled at me, ‘what’s going on?’ and I yelled, ‘your building is on fire get out!'”
Ward says he then went into the front foyer and it was full of smoke.
“I knew we had 39 units there and I knew then, we were in trouble.”
He says the right side was full of smoke “and I knew we needed all the help we could get.”
He immediately called dispatch.
More fire departments were toned out.
Tri Town Ambulance & Rescue was just leaving SMH when the radio went wild with tones. The crew responded to the scene immediately.
At 2:15 a.m., Paris Interim Police Chief and Emergency Management director for Paris, Hebron, West Paris and Greenwood, Hartley “Skip” Mowatt, got a call requesting the shelter be opened. The approved shelter in Oxford Hills is at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.
Mowatt immediately called OHCHS Principal Ted Moccia who directed Mowatt to call Assistant Principal Paul Bickford.
“I tried calling him and he didn’t answer,” says Mowatt.
Jumping in his patrol car, Mowat flew to Bickford’s house, lights flashing, to bang on his door.
“I woke him and his wife up and he said, ‘no problem’ and he’d see me at the school.”
Mowat jumped back in his car and went directly to Terry Carlton’s house. Carlton, the daughter of Speedway Inc. owner Bob Bahre, runs the company that owns and operates Oxford Meadows.
“She’s in charge of Speedway Inc. and I knew they could provide help. She and her husband said they would be right down to the high school.”
Carlton pulled together her team including her maintenance manager and the Oxford Meadows manager, and provided Mowatt with names and apartment numbers of residents, as well as their next of kin and notification numbers.
Mowatt then went to the high school.
Arriving less than a minute behind Ward to the fire scene was Norway Police officer Brandon Correia and following him about a minute later, says Ward, was Oxford Police Officer Bryce Mason.
“The three of us helped evacuate people.”
Firefighters arrived piecemeal and, then, a firetruck. Five state troopers arrived along with PACE and Oxford Fire & Rescue EMS and they all grabbed ladders off the firetruck and started climbing to get people on the second floor out.
Firefighters sought the source of the fire and worked at getting a hose in.
“I can’t tell you a lot about the fire [aspect],” says Ward, “I was concentrating on getting the people out. It is a helpless feeling knowing people are in the building and knowing you can’t get down the hall to help.”
Ward said residents were helping other residents and “they knew who had come out and who had not and they helped relay that information to the fire department.”
Ward praised Correia and the troopers saying “they did a great job.”
Firefighters from departments all over the county and neighboring counties arrived in a steady stream of trucks and quickly knocked down the fire and began to work on getting the smoke out of the building.
At 2:45 a.m., Teresa Glick, deputy director, Oxford County EMA, received a call from dispatch telling her there was a fire and Mass Casualty Incident at Oxford Meadows, that the injured were being brought to Stephens Memorial Hospital and that evacuated residents were being brought to the high school.
She contacted Allyson Hill, EMA director, and they met at the EMA office in the courthouse basement.
En route Glick contacted Mowatt asking him to have dispatch get the Red Cross to the school. Hill contacted Ken Ward, OXCART team chief, to activate the team to care for residents’ pets and County Administrator Scott Cole to tell him she needed to use the county truck to haul the OXCART trailer to the high school.
Glick also contacted Geff Inman, OCRCC deputy director. OCRCC Director James Miclon was already arranging school buses to go to the fire scene.
When Glick and Hill arrived at the EMA office dispatch let them know blankets were needed at the scene so they arranged for Paris Fire Department to send someone to get blankets from the EMA storage unit behind the firehouse and for Mowatt to collect the keys to the Red Cross trailer and bring it to the school to set up cots and blankets.
Next they activated the Incident Management Assistance Team. IMAT teams provide support to local emergency responders facing serious, prolonged incidents, such as wildfires, search-and-rescue or hostage situations. They then notified the Maine Emergency Management Agency that the local teams had been activated.
Hill also notified the United Valley Red Cross to ensure that it was prepared to respond to a fire/sheltering event. Dispatch notified Hill that the Salvation Army mobile food truck had been requested and was in route.
Robert Hand, PACE director, got the call at 2:06 a.m. to set up a triage at the PACE barn. He was told there were 30 to 40 potential patients.
On his way to the station he began notifying hospital folks that they might have 30 to 40 incoming and they should probably initiate a Code Triage. A Code Triage means staff will be recalled to the hospital to stand by for a large incoming group of patients.
Hand then texted Dwight Corning who is the hospital Safety & Security director. Corning oversees the hospital’s Mass Casualty Incident plan. Hand didn’t know Corning was on vacation.
Hospital President Tim Churchill arrived and took command of HICS – the Hospital Incident Command System. The incident command system, says Hand, was required to be a uniform system nationwide after 9/11.
Hand stood ready at PACE communicating back and forth with the hospital and EMA.
“EMA was thinking about sending the busload of residents here but I said it was probably not the best place. They responded that they were setting up a shelter at the high schools and I replied, ‘sending help.'”
“We have a text system that sends to every PACE employee at once so I sent that and four or five arrived immediately. Got more a bit later and the folks on the day shift came in early to relieve others.”
The two critical patients arrived at SMH about 2:21 a.m. Hand says, “and when I asked that crew what the situation looked like [at the scene] they said, ‘it looks bad.'”
Hand kept in constant contact with EMA and first with Paramedic Adam Petrie at the scene and later with Zac Creps, EMS Command.
All of the above, says Hand, happened in about 20 minutes.
Hand then proceeded to help track residents. One man appeared to be missing but was eventually tracked to a Lewiston hospital where he was a patient.
When things began to quiet down around 4:30 a.m., Hand set off for the shelter where he stayed until about 9 a.m. During this time he worked with Hill getting a medications list so that residents’ meds could be replaced. PACE repeatedly checked patients and transported four more to SMH from the school.
Back at the scene of the fire, responders were carefully keeping track of residents’ names and apartment numbers. Blankets were passed out and firefighters brought more chairs from a common room at the back of the complex.
Police, medics and firefighters wandered through the cluster of seated residents stopping to chat, asking how they were feeling, checking vitals, and just offering a consoling touch on the shoulder.
Pets huddled in the laps of their owners, uncannily quiet. Not one dog barked. The residents were subdued but cheerful.
Some even joked. One older lady, as a volunteer lifted her blankets so she wouldn’t trip while walking to the bus, proclaimed with a laugh “Oh my! I haven’t shaved my legs!”
When the school buses arrived, someone stood at the door and asked each person for their name and apartment, checking it off on the list.
At the school as they exited the bus, another carefully checked the list to ensure that every resident was accounted for. Another tracked those residents claimed by family members who had arrived either at the scene or at the school.
At 3:10 a.m. Ken Ward got the call to activate OXCART and respond to the high school. When he arrived, Mowatt assigned him a classroom next to the gym where the animals would be cared for.
He and team members set up the room and began caring for the five dogs at the shelter.
Hill and Glick arrived at the school to help only to find that Mowatt and IMAT Deputy Team Chief Ray Lussier had everything under control. EMS was manning a check-in table at the front keeping track of residents, Speedway Inc., representatives were also assisting residents and the state Fire Marshal had been given a private room in which to interview residents.
Cots and blankets were set up near the seating area and coffee and water where available. PACE and Oxford rescue personnel continued to assess residents and a few were transported to SMH for smoke inhalation. They also started a list of medications residents would need as those they left behind in their apartments would be contaminated.
“We really had a great team at the high school,” says Mowatt. “We had PACE, OF&R, two SAD 17 transportation department employees, Bickford, OXCART, PFD and the school’s custodial staff which were working their normal shift but extremely helpful.”
Carlton told Mowatt to do “whatever he needed” to do to care for the residents. “I said, ‘I need rooms for these people but they can’t pay’ and she said, ‘Skip you have an open checkbook … whatever you need Speedway will pay.'”
So Mowatt arranged for rooms for those residents that had no family to care for them at the Inn Town Motel which agreed to allow pets.
At 6:30 a.m. OXCART team members were dispatched to the fire scene to assist with the evacuation of animals that residents were unable to get out. These were all cats and as the cats were found and brought out of the building they were immediately brought across the street to the Norway Veterinary Hospital which had set up an emergency room to evaluate the animals.
Cats were found hiding in stereo cabinets and under couches. At 7:40 a.m. OXCART’s Ward was informed that so far six cats had been removed, one was deceased and another in poor condition. A parakeet was also removed. The bird survived thanks to being covered at the time of the fire.
Three cats were brought to the shelter along with the parakeet and all but one cat and the bird were reunited with their owners. The unclaimed cat and the bird were brought to the Responsible Pet Care shelter until their owners could pick them up. Both owners were notified by phone.
OXCART members then focused on gathering dog and cat food, cat litter and litter pans that Hill delivered to the Inn Town Motel where the residents were rehoused.
The Salvation Army Food Truck showed up without any food, says Hand, so he went to Sideline Variety to get breakfast sandwiches.
Finally, four hours after the first call, the Red Cross arrived at the high school to an almost empty shelter.
Speedway Inc. provided another room at the Inn Town Motel for the Red Cross to set up in so it could meet with each resident to determine their individual needs.
By 10:30 a.m. the shelter was closed and the school turned back to the district.
Glick and Hill issued the following statement:
“The coordination of parties involved in this incident, from Command and Fire Operations on scene working with local and state police officers and EMS to rescue residents, to local EMA and Interim Police Chief Skip Mowatt and his quick thinking and creative tactics to notify all pertinent individuals needed to assist the residents being sheltered, made a tragic fire more manageable for all involved.
“Sincere thanks to all first responders, the county Regional Communications Center, MSAD17 OHCHS representatives, Speedway, Inc., the county Incident Management Assistance Team and OXCART, the county Animal Response team, for coming together in the wee hours of the morning to assist the residents, their pets, and in turn, their family members through this difficult incident.
“The actions of the first responders and support agencies saved lives.”
Oxford Fire Chief Wayne Jones concurred.
“PACE was one of the first on the scene and Mike Ward and they helped pull people out of the building. State police sent four or five troopers who were here very quickly helping people down ladders.”
He said the fact that all fire departments are short staffed and none have a night crew on duty made the help of EMS and police even more crucial.
“They saved lives.”