To each other -- and to those around them who grieved their loss Wednesday -- Cathy Arkus and Judy Rassias were family.
In broken voices, friends and neighbors tearfully remembered the pair who died in a fast-moving house fire as generous neighbors and dog lovers whose Fine-view home had been an open door.
"The loss we are feeling is unbelievable -- both of these women were exceptional human beings that would do anything in their power to help others," said friend Marcia Rodriguez Kraus, 56, of Fineview.
Fire in Fineview leaves two women dead
Pittsburgh fire Chief Darryl Jones said the bodies of two women were recovered this morning following a fire that heavily damaged a single-family home in Pittsburgh's Fineview neighborhood. (Video by Darrell Sapp; 4/30/2014)
"It's like we've lost our family."
Officials had not released the names of the victims Wednesday, but friends identified them. Voter registration records show Ms. Arkus was 51 and Ms. Rassias was 50.
Preliminary findings indicate that "careless smoking" on the second floor of the home at 219 Belleau Drive caused the three-alarm fire, which spread to the third floor, trapping the women, said Sonya Toler, Pittsburgh's public safety spokeswoman. Ms. Arkus and Ms. Rassias were the only ones living in the home at the time.
The fire was reported shortly after 6:30 a.m. and also caused heavy damage to the homes on either side. Pittsburgh fire Chief Darryl Jones said the women were found on the third floor of the single-family home, one sitting in a chair and the other in the bathroom.
The Allegheny County medical examiner's office had not yet performed autopsies to determine cause and manner of death. A spokesman there said the office needs to pull medical records to identify the women, which could take a few days.
Overwhelmed at the two deaths, relatives were already grappling with the loss of Ms. Rassias' elderly father, who also died Wednesday morning, a relative told public safety officials.
Neighbor Pam Johnston, 46, saw what she thought was fog Wednesday morning, then smelled the smoke. She ran out and started ringing doorbells as the flames engulfed the home and dark smoke billowed.
"I was just floored. It went up so quick," she said, adding "It went up literally like a match."
The friends met in Fine-view long before they started living together. Several years ago, when Ms. Arkus' mother died and she lost her home, Ms. Rassias invited Ms. Arkus to stay with her.
"It was seamless. There was no question, it was a given" that Ms. Rassias would open her home, Ms. Kraus said.
Both had health problems that fire officials said might have prevented them from escaping the burning home.
Ms. Arkus had arthritis, Ms. Kraus said. Ms. Rassias, who cared for her sick husband before he died in 2007, had been battling cancer and stopped working in February. Ms. Kraus called her a smart, resilient woman who kept working as long as she could.
But the friends still hosted neighbors often and looked forward to 7 p.m. Friday "doggie nights" at their home, where neighbors and their pets would mingle.
Both women also had volunteered on the Fineview Citizens Council. Ms. Johnston said the friends sometimes were mistaken for sisters.
Richard Cramer, 52, whose home next door was heavily damaged, said the pair took care of his two terriers while he went to work.
He said he left for work around 4:15 a.m. Wednesday and nothing seemed out of the ordinary until he got a call from his sister saying there was a fire on his street.
"They were great neighbors. I couldn't have asked for better [neighbors]. We were the best of friends," he said.
The American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania was helping provide food and clothing to three adults from two adjacent homes.
Molly Born: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1944. First Published April 30, 2014 7:34 AM