Historic Masonic Hall Building in Maine Lost

The landscape of Bangor's downtown changed forever Friday and residents mourned the loss of a historic building as a wrecking ball began to finish off what a fire started Thursday night.

For more than 16 hours firefighters from several towns had sprayed 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of water per minute on the five-story brick structure at 116 Main St., known as the Masonic Hall Building, and still the fire burned. Nearly 5 million gallons of water encased the building, roadways, traffic lights and streetlights in thick layers of ice and snow, transforming the area into a scene reminiscent of a snowbound gingerbread village.

By Friday evening a wrecking ball was knocking the structure to the ground, allowing firefighters access to the fires that still burned within. Dozens of onlookers trained cameras and video recorders on the site from a safe distance, attempting to capture a piece of history.

Main Street and Water Street were coated in several solid inches of ice, but Public Works crews were ready to swoop in with graders and front-end loaders. Fire Chief Jeff Cammack said he hoped Main Street would be open for traffic by Saturday morning.

The 136-year-old building was owned by the Masonic Temple Association and housed the Masonic Lodge, the Masonic Learning Center, the Yankee Shoe Repair and the Riverside Art Gallery. The entire building and its contents were destroyed, but the extent of the financial losses had not been determined Friday. The building itself was valued at about $800,000.

Though Bangor normally conducts its own fire investigations, city firefighters called for help from the state Fire Marshal's Office, which began its investigation into the cause Friday afternoon. Officials, however, noted that the level of destruction may make it difficult to determine an exact cause.

Firefighters who entered the building early on noted a large amount of fire in the boiler room in the basement of the building.

The fire was called in by a passing motorist at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Assistant Fire Chief Rick Cheverie was first on the scene.

"I could see smoke pouring out of the eaves and I told them we had a working fire," Cheverie said Friday as he stood in the shadow of the ice-encased shell. "I knew we were in trouble about 10 minutes later when a crew entered the basement and said there was fire in the basement, fire on the first and second floors."

On Thursday night, the fire crew hoped to be able to tackle the fire from inside, but soon the floor above their head began to collapse and the crew was ordered out of the building.

"We took a tally to make sure we had everyone out safe and then we started a defensive operation," Cheverie said, "battling it from the outside."

Brewer and Holden departments rushed to the scene and Hampden covered the Bangor department throughout the night. On Friday morning as the fire still raged inside the building, the Orono Fire Department arrived with another aerial truck to fight stubborn flames in the back of the building.

Throughout the night and all day Friday, firefighters were plagued by frigid temperatures. Four-inch fire hoses froze solid, hydrants froze and pumps on trucks froze.

But despite the conditions and the intensity of the fire, there was only one minor injury reported. A firefighter received a black eye as he tried to catch another firefighter who was slipping off the top of a ladder truck.

By Friday morning, the operation quickly moved from a salvage operation to one of containment as firefighters fought to keep the blaze contained to the building that is nestled between the Freese's building, which provides assisted living to the elderly, and Epi's Sub and Pizza shop. Those buildings were not threatened by the fire.

As the morning wore on, the major concern became the stability of the Masonic building and city engineers were summoned, as fire officials became more afraid that the building might collapse.

"It's very unstable right now," Cheverie said at mid-morning.

The roofline at the front of the building "waved" in and out and the left side of the building had a deep bow in it.

"Those things tell us that the building is unstable," he said.

Bangor Code Enforcement Officer Dan Wellington, who spent very little of the overnight Thursday sleeping, returned to the fire scene several times, hoping at least part of the building could be saved.

The Masons, a fraternal organization, had taken pride in keeping up the building, Wellington said, modernizing the shops on the ground floor while retaining the rich history of the brick exterior, stained-glass windows at the top and inside halls and gathering rooms.

But Friday afternoon, even before the wrecking crane arrived, Cheverie was doubtful that much of the exterior could be rehabilitated.

Several engineers had been consulted and determined that because of the damage to the outside walls and the cracks running the length of the sides, it would be too costly to repair.

Yellow tape blocked the area off as officials tried to keep spectators a safe distance away in case of a collapse.

As the building continued to be weighed down in water and ice, talk of tearing the building down took on new urgency.

"If we take it down, we can control it. If it comes down on its own it could go in any direction," Cheverie said.

After consulting with city engineers and engineers from WBRC Architects and Engineers, Thomas Dicenzo Inc. of Bangor was contacted. Chris Delmonaco, crane division manager for Dicenzo, arrived on the scene and was asked to get a crane and wrecking ball to the building as soon as possible.

At 4 p.m., as the fire continued to burn inside the building, the crane arrived.

The building, however, continued to burn and officials became more concerned about its stability as the crane got set up.

"Right now we are not letting anyone, including firefighters, near that building," Cammack said at about 5 p.m. "No one's going near it until those top two levels come down."

Elsewhere downtown, Bangor Hydro Electric. Co. was on scene in the event other buildings lost power.

"We are a bit concerned about water getting into two underground vaults that are located on each side of the building. Those vaults contain equipment that controls the power for the downtown area," Cammack said.

The fire disrupted traffic in the entire downtown area Thursday night, Friday and Friday night as motorists were rerouted away from Main and Water streets and businesses remained closed.

A small river of water rushed down the sloping Water Street into the city's parking garage, closing the garage for the day. Key Bank, which sits in the shadow of the old building, closed for the day as firetrucks and equipment took over the parking lot.

The BAT Community Connector transit system relocated its downtown operation Friday, picking up passengers at the State Street and Kenduskeag Stream locations, but not at the parking garage.