Mike Rohach was asleep about 5 a.m. Sunday in his first-floor Shadyside apartment when a smoke alarm sounded. He awoke to check it, thinking there were problems with newly installed batteries.
But the detector was performing properly. The alarm and smell of smoke would send Mr. Rohach dashing through the three-story, red-brick apartment building at 5822 Alder St. to alert residents about a fire in the main second-story apartment, which would claim the life of his friend.
Madeline Lankiwicz, 65, died just inside the front door of her apartment. Smoke and flames prevented recovery of her body, Mr. Rohach said.
Shadyside woman killed in early morning house fire
A 65-year-old Shadyside woman was killed in an early morning house fire. (Video by Nate Guidry; 3/16/2013)
The Allegheny County medical examiner said it would take several days to confirm her identify. Her brother, Charles Lankiwicz, 69, of Lawrenceville, however, said officials notified him of her death Sunday afternoon while acknowledging that full confirmation of identity would take time.
A news release from the Pittsburgh's department of public safety said firefighters and emergency medical personnel responded about 5 a.m. to the three-alarm blaze. A firefighter was injured from slipping on ice at the scene and was taken to a local hospital.
Responding to his smoke alarm, Mr. Rohach said he smelled smoke as water began pouring down from the ceiling of his first-floor apartment. He didn't know whether a pipe had burst or Ms. Lankiwicz -- whom he called Mitzi -- was dumping water on the flames to quench the blaze.
He darted upstairs only to encounter thick, hot smoke and find himself unable to open her apartment door. "Acrid smoke was so pungent that it burned my lungs," he said.
Returning to the first floor, he got "another gulp of oxygen" and returned to the second floor with a rag over his nose. Finally opening her door, he spotted Ms. Lankiwicz's body near the doorway.
"The flames and smoke were so intense that I realized I couldn't do any more," he said.
Mr. Rohach next pounded on the door of a second-floor efficiency while screaming until its resident appeared. He told her to head downstairs and call 911 while he headed to the third-floor only to discover that resident already descending the steps with her two dogs. The woman told him her dogs had awakened her.
The fire started in Ms. Lankiwicz's bedroom, Mr. Rohach said. Fire officials, however, have yet to rule on the what caused the fire.
Mr. Rohach said he and Ms. Lankiwicz were strangers 40 years ago when they began renting their respective apartments in a house with four apartments. In those years, he said, he'd grow angry with her for holding parties with loud music late at night. But eventually they became friends.
Mr. Lankiwicz said his sister had been living alone ever since the death of her husband, Hugh Corcoran, more than three years ago. She had mobility problems requiring her to use a cane, he said.
She previously had worked as a doctor's receptionist at UPMC Presbyterian before leg problems forced her retirement, Mr. Rohach said. "She was an animal lover -- we're both animal lovers -- and she had cats and liked to go to clubs. She liked jazz," he said.
At one point, while recovering personal items, Mr. Rohach took a moment in the back doorway to stare off into the distance and cross himself before disappearing inside once again, this time with tears in his eyes.
David Templeton: email@example.com or 412-263-1578. First Published March 16, 2014 9:15 AM