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Police keep apartment blaze at bay until woman can be reached

| Friday, Oct. 30, 2009

The smoke was so thick that Blawnox police Officer Tom Duffy could not see the woman trapped on the balcony below.

"I just yelled, 'Are you still down there?'" Duffy said Thursday, hours after he and other officers and firefighters charged into a high-rise apartment building on Center Avenue and saved the woman from a fire in her apartment. "She said, 'Yeah, I'm still here.' So I told her I was with the police department and we were working on getting her out."

But the flames were so intense that all Duffy and O'Hara police Officer Mike Pistorius could do was grab an emergency fire hose mounted in the hallway three doors down, drag it onto the balcony and spray blindly below.

That move, fire officials said, kept the fire at bay until firefighters arrived, and doused Jean Guentner, 79, just enough to keep her alive.

"The local police went above and beyond their calling," said Donald A. Brucker, Allegheny County chief deputy fire marshal. "They really probably saved her life. They were able to bank water into the apartment to contain the fire and probably saved countless lives."

The fire started about 1:40 a.m. in Guentner's fifth-floor unit at the apartment complex for seniors, authorities said. The fire marshal's office is investigating the cause.

Duffy, who works the graveyard shift, was at a gas station on Freeport Road when a passerby told him he could see flames shooting from the nearby building. He drove around the corner, saw Guentner on the balcony, then ran up to the fifth floor.

Pistorius arrived as Duffy was entering the building. He ran to the balcony, called out to Guentner, assured her that help was on the way, then barreled in after Duffy.

"There was heavy smoke everywhere," Pistorius said. "We couldn't get into her apartment because it was too hot. So we ran to the sixth floor."

One floor above the fire, the heat on the balcony was so intense that Duffy and Pistorius could only stand on it for about 10 seconds at a time, Duffy said. So they took turns holding the hose and calling to Guentner.

"She was pretty calm," Duffy said. "We'd call down and she'd say, 'I'm here, I'm here.' But it was so hot — if we couldn't even take it on the balcony, I can't imagine how bad it was for her."

When firefighters arrived, they broke down Guentner's front door, knocked down the flames and made their way to the balcony, Blawnox Fire Chief George McBriar said.

There they found Guentner "laying in the fetal position," McBriar said. Her skin had begun to blister in spots, he said.

Paramedics took her to West Penn Hospital's burn center in Bloomfield, where she was in serious condition, spokeswoman Stephanie Waite said.

"They saved (her) life," said Frank Aggazio, executive director of the Allegheny County Housing Authority, which owns the senior housing building. "They beat back the fire."

Two other residents were taken to a hospital, Brucker said. Their conditions were unknown.

Duffy, Pistorius and O'Hara police Officer Frank Benigni, Aspinwall police Officer Brian Hobel and Etna police Sgt. Ed Winchel then went door to door to evacuate residents. The building houses about 100 people, officials said. Many could not walk and had to be carried down several flights of stairs.

"We had to get them out of there, the smoke was pretty bad," Benigni said. "You could just feel the heat pouring in. There were some spots where I could barely see in front of me."

On the eighth floor, the smoke was so thick that Duffy and Pistorius could only move residents to their balconies until the air cleared, officials said.

Aggazio estimated damage at $1.5 million, mostly because of smoke and water damage.

Residents were evacuated to a nearby church, where the American Red Cross and local eateries provided food. The housing authority sent workers to retrieve residents' medications later in the morning, Aggazio said.

Sgt. Ed Mogus of the Allegheny County Housing Authority police said most residents were allowed back into the building except for those on the fifth floor. The fifth floor will be closed "upwards of a week," he said. The housing authority and Red Cross will provide shelter for those displaced residents.

It was the second fire at the high rise in two years, as residents were forced to escape an October 2007 fire.

Fran DeWitt said she panicked when she walked out her apartment door two years ago and saw flames. Yesterday, she calmly knocked on her neighbors' doors to wake them and then headed out.

"I was new then and I didn't know about the stairwell," said DeWitt, 68. "I know the stairwells now, so I wasn't afraid."

Though officials called Duffy and Pistorius heroes for their quick thinking, they deflected praise.

"We had to do something, no matter how little it was," Pistorius said. "I actually felt kind of helpless on that balcony — I honestly didn't think that lady was going to survive."

And both officers credited teamwork between the multiple fire and police departments involved in the rescue operation.

"We all know we all have to help each other out here," Duffy said, noting that the departments dotting the banks of the Allegheny River are small, but quick to back up others. "That's how it is out here. Everybody just helps out."

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