Fire rips through 3 Knoxville homes, prompts neighbors to rescue toddler from roof |

Fire rips through 3 Knoxville homes, prompts neighbors to rescue toddler from roof

Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Fire and EMS respond to a fire on Reifert Street in Knoxville on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Fire and EMS respond to a fire on Reifert Street in Knoxville on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.

Hamisi Smith woke from a nap about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday to his neighbors screaming for help.

Smith, 40, ran outside toward the source of the commotion in Pittsburgh’s Knoxville neighborhood.

Thick black smoke engulfed a house across the street. A fire appeared to be spreading rapidly.

A man and a woman clutching a toddler clung to the roof atop the burning home’s front porch. Flames burst through a pair of second-story windows just a few feet away.

‘Please don’t drop my baby’

As other witnesses updated 911 dispatchers on their cell phones, Smith became laser-focused on a single task — getting that little boy to safety.

Smith called on the assistance of his 17-year-old godson, Rayshawn Brown, who was standing nearby. They ran toward the stranded adults and told them to pass down the toddler.

With trepidation and care, the woman took the boy by his arms and began dangling him over the porch roof.

“Please, don’t drop my baby!” the woman cried out as she lowered the toddler toward Brown’s outstretched arms.

Brown grabbed hold of the child’s legs, brought him toward his chest and cradling the toddler in his arms.

As the fire continued to escalate, the two adults jumped onto the porch roof of the house next door, which was threatened by the fire but not yet engulfed in flames. Smith, Brown and a few other witnesses fetched a ladder to help the adults climb down.

The entire rescue effort took about four minutes — all three trapped residents were down by the time firefighters arrived shortly after 11:40 a.m. to begin battling the five-alarm fire on Reifert Street, 911 records show.

Officials credited the work of Smith, Brown and other Good Samaritans in helping to prevent the fire — which raged for more than an hour and ripped through three houses — from resulting in more serious harm.

8 injured; 2 dogs saved, 1 dog dies

No one was seriously injured in the fire.

A total of eight people — including three firefighters and a police officer — were treated for minor injuries related to the fire, Public Safety spokesman Chris Togneri said.

The toddler was unharmed.

The police officer injured an ankle while trying to stop people from running back inside the burning home, Togneri said. One firefighter was taken to UPMC Mercy hospital with a minor head injury, and two firefighters were treated by medics for heat exhaustion at the site of the fire.

A chihuahua that neighbors know as “Chi-Chi” or “Cheech” died in the house where the fire started. Two other dogs in the second house made it out safely.

Both occupied houses sustained fire, smoke and water damage that gutted the properties and all their belongings.

The third damaged house was vacant.

Officials still are investigating the cause of the fire, which they believe began inside a red brick house occupied by a man, a woman and a toddler before spreading to two adjacent houses. Authorities began receiving reports of the fire and people initially trapped on the roof at 11:37 a.m. Firefighters from several units responded by 11:44 a.m.

They extinguished the flames by 1 p.m.

Shortly after 2 p.m., officials allowed one of the affected families to go inside to see if they could recover any belongings. Eric and Sarah Holzwarth, who both rushed back from their respective jobs to find their home in flames, took only a few items — including their young son’s favorite Steelers blanket and pillow, which was soot-ridden and soggy from the water and fire retardant that soaked most of the property.

‘At least the turtle will be OK’

The blanket and pillow were all that 11-year-old Trent Holzwarth could salvage.

“It’s not such a good thing to happen before my birthday,” said Trent, who turns 12 later this month.

His father, Eric Holzwarth, was thankful that Trent wasn’t home when the fire broke out. School started back up just last week for the seventh grader, who said that, luckily, most of his new school supplies were with him in his backpack. He asked his son for his pants size while on the phone with someone helping the family get new clothes.

“It’s destroyed in there. Everything’s ruined,” Eric Holzwarth said. “The attic’s gone. Half the roof’s missing.”

The American Red Cross is assisting with temporary housing arrangements and other short-term help for the two displaced households.

The Holzwarth family also was thankful that no harm came to their two dogs, a boxer-Labrador mix and a husky who were inside their home when the fire broke out next door.

Trent told his dad he was happy his dogs were safe, then gestured toward a small pond untouched by the fire in their front yard.

“Well, at least the turtle will be OK,” Trent said.

“Yeah, he’ll be fine. The pond’s fine,” Eric Holzwarth replied.

He reassured his son that everything would be OK.

“Oh, well,” Eric Holzwarth said with a somber shrug. “Everybody got out, so that’s all that matters.”

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