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Residents who escaped fire at Pittsburgh's Midtown Towers may have long wait to return home

| Thursday, May 18, 2017, 11:36 p.m.
A fire burns at Midtown Towers in Pittsburgh early Monday, May 15, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
A man stands across the street from the Midtown Towers in Downtown Pittsburgh which was the scene of a deadly fire on Monday, May 15, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Firefighters work the scene the scene of a deadly fire at the Midtown Towers in Downtown Pittsburgh on Monday, May 15, 2017.
Megan Guza | Tribune-Review
A woman died during a seven-alarm fire at the Midtown Towers apartment building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Monday, May 15, 2017.
Megan Guza | Tribune-Review
A woman died during a seven-alarm fire at the Midtown Towers apartment building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Monday, May 15, 2017.
Megan Guza | Tribune-Review
A woman died during a seven-alarm fire at the Midtown Towers apartment building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Monday, May 15, 2017.
Megan Guza | Tribune-Review
A woman died during a seven-alarm fire at the Midtown Towers apartment building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Monday, May 15, 2017.

It could be a month before many of the more than 100 people displaced by a fire that killed a woman and gutted three floors of Downtown Pittsburgh's Midtown Towers building can return home.

The wait could be even longer for those who lived on the 18-story apartment building's fifth through eighth floors, which took the brunt of the damage from the fire that began about 3 a.m. Monday. A representative with the high-rise's property management company, NDC Real Estate, has begun helping those renters search for new permanent housing, several Midtown Towers residents told the Tribune-Review on Thursday.

Yvonne A. Brown — who had lived in the building for nearly three decades — lamented that on Friday, she and fellow displaced residents will have to move to another temporary shelter, their third this week.

Amid the uncertainty, longtime tenants such as Brown are considering other long-term housing options.

“I'm not going back in there — I can't take this anymore. I'm too old,” said Brown, 80, while sitting in the lobby of the Quality Inn University Center hotel in Oakland, where NDC Real Estate rented rooms for several dozen residents on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire Chief Darryl Jones said the fire destroyed three floors and caused extensive damage to utility lines and infrastructure used by the rest of the building. The chief said the building's structural integrity did not seemed threatened, but he estimated that repairs could take weeks or longer.

Neither the owner nor officials with NDC Real Estate could be reached for comment Thursday.

Authorities continue to investigate the cause of the fire, which quickly reached seven alarms , flooded hallways and stairwells with thick smoke and sent 3- to 4-foot flames shooting out a window.

Fire officials believe the blaze began on the sixth floor, which is where 75-year-old Mary Robinson died of smoke inhalation.

As renovations proceed, tenants say they plan to urge the building's owner and property manager to invest in upgrades to the 110-year-old building's emergency warning systems — including by installing fire sprinklers, making available more fire extinguishers and improving the quality of the building-wide alarm system.

Maura Kennedy, Pittsburgh's chief of the office of Permits, Licenses and Inspections, said Monday that the building had no current violations related to safety systems and passed an inspection in March 2016. She noted that sprinkler systems did not become a high-rise requirement until 1990.

On Thursday, several tenants voiced another concern: whether the fire alarm system was loud enough and startling enough.

“It definitely needs to be addressed, because it's almost as if three people were the alarm system,” said Jason Hondros, 35, who lived on the fifth floor and happened to be at a 7-Eleven microwaving a burrito when the fire began.

Hondros joined Ricco J.L. Martello, a 7-Eleven employee and freelance photographer, and his friend, Ryan Brown, in running into the burning building, banging on doors and screaming for everyone to get out. They helped elderly residents with walkers and wheelchairs navigate the smoke-filled stairwells to safety.

Once they were inside, “it was a very eerie sight to see that the smoke was blowing through the building and nobody was coming out,” recalled Hondros, who described the alarm as a muffled buzzing noise. “Nobody was responding. Nobody was hearing it.”

By the time Hondros made it to the eleventh floor — where his mother, Ticki Marchetti, lived — he was crawling to avoid the thickening smoke, but she had no idea what was going on.

“Mother, mother, get to the door! We have to get out!” Marchetti, a retired K-8 teacher who has trouble hearing in her right ear, recalled her son screaming as she scrambled toward her front door wearing a robe and slippers.

Brown said that she had previously complained about the hallway alarm's volume because she was displeased that “if your door is closed, you can't hear it.”

Aside from shelter, the displaced residents said a top concern is having enough food.

Brown lives on a fixed income, has already spent her latest food stamps allotment and had been storing months' worth of meat in her apartment's deep freezer. Marchetti said that she had just loaded her refrigerator with $200 worth of groceries.

On Monday and Tuesday, some residents found places to stay with family and friends while a few dozen slept on cots at a makeshift shelter at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. The American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania manned the shelter and paid for the center's catering staff to provide meals.

The Walnut Grill, Jimmy John's, Chipotle and the McDonald's franchise on Wood Street are among local eateries that have donated food.

“Everybody always rallies together in times like this,” Red Cross spokesman Dan Tobin said. “You see the good in people, because so many come out of the woodwork to help.”

The displaced residents were told they will be relocated to a Monroeville hotel on Friday.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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