New Pittsburgh Courier photographer “Ricco” Martello runs into burning Midtown Towers building to save lives

Courtesy WPXI-TV

He says nervousness never played a factor, would do the same thing all over again
In the early morning hours of Monday, May 15, a fire quickly spread throughout various areas of the Midtown Towers apartments on Liberty Ave., Downtown.
One woman, 75-year-old Mary Robinson, died as a result of the fire.
Many tried to save the other residents in the older high-rise building. But the first person to notice the fire, and call 9-1-1, was New Pittsburgh Courier photographer Ricco J.L. Martello. He told Courier managing editor Rob Taylor Jr. that he made entry into the building and began banging on doors to wake up the residents. Jason Honduras helped Ricco get inside the building.
“We (a friend of Ricco’s, Ryan Brown) ran up the stairwell and just started beating on doors, first floor, second floor, third floor, fourth floor,” he said. “I stayed on the sixth floor and started banging on doors there.”
The sixth floor is where the fire seemed to have begun. It’s also the floor that was the site of the fatality. Ricco said he banged on doors on the sixth floor until people came out. Two or three people came out of the apartments on that floor, while residents in lower floors heard some of the banging earlier and escaped.
“I heard somebody (when I was on the sixth floor), and I screamed, ‘Where are you, where are you?’ and nobody said anything,” Ricco said. “I heard a radio call from a walkie talkie, and I looked down and the fireman was standing there, he said for me to come down. I told him there’s someone up here, but they said there’s a fire team on the sixth floor right now, and so I came down the steps.”
On his way down, he located an elderly woman, “about 80 years old,” Ricco estimated. He said she was very frightened by the ordeal. Ricco said he helped her down five flights of steps to safety.
Pittsburgh Fire Chief Darryl Jones said in a press conference Monday afternoon that there were no working sprinklers in the older high-rise. When pressed about if older apartment buildings should require sprinklers, Jones said: “Let me just say this, sprinklers have been around for about 100 years now, and in that hundred-year-time, there has never been a fatality as a result of fire in a building with a working sprinkler system.”
WPXI-TV aired a story Monday afternoon which showed a woman, Venus Whisenhunt, crediting Ricco for saving her stepmother.
“If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t be alive today,” Whisenhunt said on WPXI.
Ricco told the Courier that in the overnight hours, he was just standing outside, with his boys, talking the talk. But when the smoke and flames became visible in the building nearby, he walked the walk. And nervousness never was a factor.
“You just had to do it,” Ricco told the Courier. “How many people were going to die because I was nervous?
“They said 100 people live in there and its 3 in the morning, you gotta get them out,” Ricco said. “The fire company ain’t here yet, it’s going on right now. They got here quick, but they’re not superman.
When asked if Ricco would do the same thing all over again, he answered in the affirmative, in true Ricco fashion.
“Yea, but I would hope that I would react a little bit faster so that there wouldn’t be a fatality.”
Sounds like the Ricco we know.


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