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75-Year-Old Woman Killed, Firefighters Injured In Midtown Towers Fire Downtown

PITTSBURGH, Pa. (KDKA) - One person is dead and several others were injured in a seven-alarm fire inside the Midtown Towers in Downtown Pittsburgh early Monday morning.

Firefighters were called out to the 600 block of Liberty Avenue around 3 a.m. Smoke and flames could be seen coming from the sixth floor of the building, which is one of Pittsburgh's original skyscrapers.

Crews on the scene reported debris falling out of a window and catching at least one dumpster behind the building on fire.

Ethan Whitby lives below the sixth floor where the fire started.

John Shumway's Report:

"Seeing that fire fall out the window and we knew we had to get out. It was pretty smoky," Whitby said.

The fire reached seven alarms with every resident evacuated from the 17 floors.

"It was a bunch of white smoke," James Smith said. "Firemen helping everybody and everybody hollering and screaming. It was horrible, it was terrible."

The Liberty Avenue high-rise houses a significant number of elderly residents who are on oxygen.

The fire chief says this was a difficult fire to fight. While the building has smoke alarms, it did not have a sprinkler system.

"No sprinklers in this building. At the time this building was built, they probably were not required at that time," Pittsburgh Fire Chief Darryl Jones said.

Authorities say the building's fire alarm did function, alerting emergency personnel to the blaze.

Freelance Journalist Ricco Martello heard the building's fire alarm and ran from one apartment to the another trying to wake up residents before firefighters arrived.

Martello said, "Me and a friend of mine, Ryan, we banged on the doors. There was fire alarms, but we didn't hear them outside. We heard them when we went back around the building again.

Two firefighters became trapped on the seventh and eighth floors, which prompted two mayday calls.

"I've been here 10 years and this is the first time we had a fire this significant in a high-rise that I can recall and I cannot recall any of those times where we actually had a mayday inside of a high-rise," Chief Jones said.

Chief Jones Update --

One firefighter was taken to UPMC Mercy Hospital, while another was treated at the scene. Their injuries were not serious.

"In the end, we only transported two people - one firefighter and one resident who was having breathing issues. Both are in stable condition," said Pittsburgh EMS Chief Robert Farrow.

All have been treated and released.

One woman died in the fire. She has been identified as 75-year-old Mary Robinson. She lived in the apartment where the fire started.

Vonnie Mason lived in a second-floor apartment and was friends with the victim.

Mason told KDKA-TV's Ralph Iannotti, "We used to go to the Rivers Casino together. She was a friend. We'd sit on the chairs out here, and have all sorts of conversations. A real nice woman."

Mason said she believed Robinson worked in a cafeteria at the University of Pittsburgh.

"You always saw her in her uniform. It looked like a cafeteria workers uniform. She wore black nail polish to match it," Mason said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

"There's an active investigation going on between arson and homicide right now," Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said.

Christine D'Antonio's Report:

Officials said the intense fire was moving through void spaces in the building, making it particularly difficult to fight. Also, furnishings with synthetic materials may have increased the intensity of a fire.

The blaze also knocked out water service to the building.

There were also several travel restrictions in place due to the fire.

Liberty Avenue was closed from Ninth Street to Sixth Street. Meanwhile, Wood Street was closed from Sixth Street to Liberty Avenue.

Port Authority spokesman Jim Richie tells the "KDKA Morning News" 50 bus routes were being affected by the fire.

"Buses are getting as close to where they're supposed to be in Downtown, but I think a lot of bus routes will continue turning short of Liberty Avenue and cutting around that part of town while the emergency crews are still in that area," said Richie.

The Wood Street T Station was also closed for a period of time, but reopened around 6:30 a.m.

It is unclear when residents will be allowed back into the building, but the sixth and seventh floors suffered significant damage.

Some of them were being allowed onto certain floors of the building to gather their belongs late Monday afternoon, but there's no timetable on when the residents can permanently return.

The Red Cross has set up a temporary shelter at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for residents displaced by the fire.

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