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Firefighters Trapped As Soon As They Entered Burning House

February 15, 1995

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The three firefighters on a rescue mission were trapped almost as soon as they entered the burning home.

As they stumbled through heat and smoke, a stairway collapsed in a ball of fire that burned through their hose and stranded them in a family room.

Left without water to fight the blaze, the firefighters hammered at the room’s thick, plastic-covered windows with helmets and fire axes in a vain effort to escape.

``They probably knew they were going to die,″ said Raymond DeMichiei, operations supervisor for Pittsburgh’s 911 center.

Investigators photographed, plotted and diagrammed evidence Tuesday to try to learn what _ if anything _ might have saved Capt. Thomas Brooks, 42, and firefighters Patricia Conroy, 43, and Mark Kolenda, 27.

All three were killed in the early morning blaze that destroyed a house and injured three other firefighters.

The deaths were the worst disaster to hit the 120-year-old Fire Department since seven firefighters suffocated in a tank of wax in 1924, authorities said.

``It appears that this is one of these things that just happened,″ DeMichiei said. ``You can always second-guess yourself. But other than to say they should never have gone in there at all, they did what they’re supposed to do.″

The six-member family that lived in the home escaped unharmed before firefighters arrived. But firefighters are required to search homes even when they have been told all residents have escaped, DeMichiei said.

``You don’t know that everyone’s out for sure,″ he said. ``There have been numerous cases where people say that nobody’s in there, and there’s somebody left inside.″

The cause of the fire was still unknown Tuesday.

At Engine Co. 17, which had jurisdiction over the fire, a pot of fresh, white mums _ a sympathy gift from a neighbor _ sat on the kitchen table while the flag outside flew at half-staff. The station’s telephone rang with neighbors offering sympathy and relatives checking on loved ones.

Mayor Thomas Murphy wore a black ribbon and fire Chief Charles Dickinson had a black band over his badge.

``We will remember these people for what they were _ heroes,″ Murphy said at an emotional news conference.

In the company garage, bereaved firefighters talked about their fallen colleagues.

Capt. Tom Reinheimer said Conroy showed her dedication through volunteer work, visiting stressed-out public safety workers and offering an ear and a shoulder.

``Now we need it ourselves,″ he said.

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