By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff – Photos by Kate Collins
Bangor Daily News, Tuesday, September 16, 2008
MILO, Maine — A fire that consumed an entire block of the downtown district Sunday morning was set intentionally and was believed connected to a break-in the same night at one of the destroyed businesses.
Sgt. Ken Grimes of the State Fire Marshal’s Office confirmed Monday that arson was the cause of the fire that started in the rear of Hobnobbers Pub. He said there was evidence of a break-in at the pub that he feels is connected to the fire.
While the fire marshal’s office and police have a suspect, no one has yet been charged for the fire that destroyed the Milo Flower Shop, the former movie theater, the Spot Game Room, Milo True Value Hardware Store, the pub, and apartments above the businesses. The fire also damaged the Milo House of Pizza.
Federal and state officials and the American Red Cross were in Milo on Monday to meet with local officials and the affected business owners and tenants. A meeting has been scheduled at 10 a.m. Wednesday, in the town hall dining room to discuss possible federal and state assistance.
“Yes, it’s a tragedy,” Milo Town Manager Jeff Gahagan said Monday as he surveyed the damage with representatives of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, but he said he preferred to look at the positives. No one was hurt, it was not winter, and volunteer firefighters from 10 communities and the local police did an amazing job, he said. Additionally, the American Red Cross assisted those displaced, and the community rallied to help, from the refreshments restaurants, stores and the firefighters auxiliary provided to weary firefighters to the bags of donated items provided to the families who lost their belongings, he said.
The early morning fire was discovered and reported by Shawn Gray, 32, who worked at Hobnobbers Pub and lived above the business. He said he lost his television cable coverage at about midnight and got up to look out the window before going to bed. As he did so, Gray said, he observed a woman walk from Main Street to Water Street behind the pub, followed a short time later by a man. Not thinking much about it, the former South Portland executive chef said he went to bed. The pub is the site of the town’s first fire department in 1906, according to Gwen Bradeen, curator of the Milo Historical Society Museum.
At about 3:30 a.m. he awoke to the smell of smoke. Having grown up in Milo and having returned three weeks ago to be closer to his parents, Gray said he was familiar with the smell of wood-burning stoves. He knew something was on fire. He said he got dressed, went out on his porch and discovered fire on the ground level.
As he called 911 and headed downstairs for water to douse the flames, Gray said a teenager, who was walking home after visiting friends in Derby, stopped and asked him whether he knew the building was on fire.
“We [the teenager and I] grabbed buckets, whatever we could find and filled them up with water from the kitchen and took it outside to put the fire out,” Gray said. When they realized the fire was bigger than they first thought, they abandoned the building and went next door to wake Shemekia Robshaw, who is pregnant, her husband, Ron Robshaw, and their five children, ages 15, 13, 9, 7 and 4. The family managed to scramble to safety.
Despite the efforts of Milo, Bradford, Brownville, Charleston, Dover-Foxcroft, Corinth, Dexter, Guilford, LaGrange, Sangerville and Sebec firefighters, the fire spread up Main Street largely because the wooden buildings were so close together that some had common walls, Gahagan said. He said even though some firefighters, including Fire Chief Dave Preble, were away at the annual Firefighters Convention, there was a good turnout from all departments. “They’re just a fantastic group of people,” he said of the volunteers.
The tenants and businesses lost everything other than a couple of rifles and part of a computer salvaged from the True Value Store owned by John and Barbara Crossman. During the fire, about 100,000 rounds of ammunition exploded inside the store.
“It’s a loss for the town,” Barbara Crossman said Monday. The Crossmans have owned the business 14 years and employed two full-time and two part-time employees. The business was insured and an adjuster is expected on Tuesday, she said.
“Each little town has their Main Street and a third or almost nearly a half [or ours] is gone,” Crossman said. Even with her loss, Barbara Crossman said she felt bad for the Robshaw family. “They lost their home; we were able to come home, the Robshaws weren’t,” she said.
The Robshaws are being housed temporally in rental cabins at Country Cabin Resort and are expected to move soon into a nearby home they will rent. The family was thankful that Gray alerted them to the fire.
Gray, who is staying with a friend in Brownville, said he had heard no commotion in the pub after he and owner Val Robertson had locked up at 9 that night.
Robertson, who recently leased the storefront formerly occupied by Valerie Jean’s, An American Bistro, and had opened Hobnobbers Pub, was upset with her loss but thankful no one was injured in the early morning fire. Despite the fact she had no insurance to cover her approximately $3,000 loss, Robertson, who works part time at the post office, is a substitute teacher, the town’s animal control officer, director of the animal shelter for cats and Kiwanis Club president, showed her sense of humor.
“I think I am, I will,” Robertson said, of reopening her business. “I think I’ll call it the Phoenix Pub because we’re going to rise out of the ashes.”
“Our concern now is public safety,” and helping the businesses to recover, Gahagan said. “Everybody’s pulling together and that’s a tremendous help for us to move forward. It’s a tragic event, however, the strength of the people in Milo will prevail.”
An account has been set up to assist the fire victims at Maine Savings Bank, c/o Town of Milo. Checks should be made out to Fire Victim Account and mailed to P.O. Box 218, Milo 04463.