- Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2015

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - A year after Maine’s largest city saw its deadliest fire in 40 years, neighbors, friends and family will dedicate a “stars of light” memorial to the six victims.

Artist Pandora LaCasse and her husband were busy Friday installing six diamond-shaped sculptures, one for each person who died in the apartment fire Nov. 1, 2014. Each will be illuminated while dangling from limbs of a large tree.

The piece will be dedicated Sunday in Longfellow Park, around the corner from the razed site of the fire. Not everyone was happy with plans for a memorial; many had mixed feelings. But in the end, supporters prevailed.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Ashley Summers, wife of Rockland resident Steven Summers, who died in the blaze. “I’m happy that the memorial is being put in, but at the same time, the realization of what it is, is painful.”

The fire started in the early morning in an apartment house while several partygoers were sleeping following a Halloween gathering. Cigarette butts discarded in a plastic receptacle on the porch were identified as the source of the blaze.

But manslaughter charges are pending against the landlord, who officials say had divided the house into a duplex and was illegally using it as a boarding house with no working smoke detectors. A lawsuit also alleges an emergency exit was blocked, preventing escape for some victims.

Neighbor Carol Schiller remembers waking up that morning at the sound of an explosion. From her bedroom window, she saw flames shooting from the house and saw Summers on fire after he had tumbled onto the ground from a second-floor window. The married father of two girls was burned over 98 percent of his body and died days later at a Boston hospital.

Portland residents Nicole Finlay, David Bragdon Jr., Ashley Thomas and Christopher Conlee also died in the fire, along with Maelisha Jackson of Topsham.

Schiller had spearheaded an art project for the park before the fire and it evolved into the memorial project.

“It helps the families. For them it’s a private memorial. But it always had this dual component that it’s something beautiful for the neighborhood,” she said.

Not all neighbors liked the idea, though. School Board member Laurie Davis told the city’s art commission she felt the memorial was being forced on residents. City Council member Edward Suslovic said some residents of the neighborhood felt public notice surrounding the project was lacking, especially one related to an event with such emotional impact.

But Andrew Dunham, who lives across the street from the park, said a memorial for the six victims was appropriate.

“It was such a shock. They were so young,” he said.

The final piece is a result of a request from Ashley Summers that it turn a tragedy into a celebration of their lives, LaCasse said Friday.

“They (the victims’ families) wanted it to be a celebration of their lives,” LaCasse said. “I liked that idea. I liked being a part of that.”

___

Associated Press writer Patrick Whittle contributed to this report.

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