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.