A fire in the Gorham House of Pizza building last night displaced five students and three other tenants living above the pizzeria.
No one was injured in the downtown Gorham fire, which began around 9:30 p.m. as a result of a bathroom ceiling fan between the second and third floors being left on for too long, according to the Gorham Fire Department.
One of the tenants, Caitlin O’Reilly, a senior musical theater major at the University of Southern Maine, said the situation was a strange way for her to end an undergraduate career.
“One of my friends said to me, ‘Just think of it. You’re literally starting from the beginning again,’” said O’Reilly, who graduates in May along with two other roommates.
O’Reilly said she and her roommates — three of whom also attend USM and one University of New England student — were hanging out in the apartment when one of the smoke alarms went off. They initially thought it was a false alarm, but as soon as they saw smoke coming from the attic, they rushed out of the building.
Gorham Senior Fire Investigator Danny Young said there is no connection to the five recent arson cases in the area. Some belongings were damaged in two of the three apartments, he said, like home entertainment goods and furniture.
Jericah Potvin, a junior musical theater major and a roommate of O’Reilly’s, said she was at a friend’s house when she heard about the apartment fire.
Potvin clutched a stuffed animal cat named “Kitty” covered in smoke marks and soaked in water as she spoke with The Free Press. She said it might have been silly to prioritize the stuffed animal over other belongings, but it was one of the first things she worried about because she’s had it since her first Christmas.
“At this point, this makes me feel lucky,” Potvin said. “A lot of our stuff is going to be OK.”
Young estimated the water and smoke damage to the building will cost Gorham House of Pizza owner Angelo Sotiopoulos about half a million dollars. All of the tenants in the building’s three apartments must relocate.
USM Residential Life Director Denise Nelson said the five students will relocate to a guest suite in Upperclass Hall — free of charge — on the Gorham campus for temporary housing with complementary food and toiletries. Two or more empty suites are always on reserve in case of emergencies like this.
“Since we’re so close to the end of the semester, we’re letting them stay past graduation,” Nelson said.
Gorham House of Pizza employees said they don’t know what will happen next, though they have faith that owner Sotiopoulos will get the business back and running at some point. The business and building were insured.
Young recommended that the tenants have all belongings moved out of the building by today because thieves occasionally steal items at the sites of recent house fires. O’Reilly said another tenant already had some expensive items stolen including a PlayStation 3 video game system.
Despite the circumstances, O’Reilly said she and her roommates have been lucky because of support from friends and most of their belongings were not damaged.
“It’s been a beautiful experience because our friends came out to support,” O’Reilly said. “When we went to our friend’s house for the night, people had baked food for us and bought a week’s worth of groceries.”
Friends of the students are setting up a donation box on the Gorham campus. Click here to learn how to help.