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Neighbor, 16, saves fire victim in St. Paul duplex

A St. Paul firefighter crawls into a second floor window at 424 Goodrich Street to battle a fire and rescue residents during an early morning fire on July 21, 2014. At least two people were rescued from the second floor. Photo by Peter Matthews

ST. PAUL -- Ricardo Martinez looked outside and saw the flaming St. Paul duplex. Then the shoeless teenager leaped into action.

“I heard people inside, so my first instinct was to see if I could help anyone,” the 16-year-old said of the early Monday morning fire in which he pulled one man to safety from a second-floor window and attempted to rescue his brother.

Authorities later said the 12:30 a.m. fire in the West Seventh Street neighborhood was deliberately set and they planned to interview a “person of interest” on Tuesday.

The victims of the fire at 424 Goodrich Ave. were brothers Louis Stauch, 65, and Richard Stauch, 67. Both were in fair condition Monday evening at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

Martinez, who lives in the neighborhood, and three of his friends were upstairs at the home of Felix Garcia, 17, when they heard screaming and yelling, he said. At first, it sounded playful, but the screams quickly grew intense.

One boy in the group, Luis Ramirez, 17, looked out the window and yelled to the others that the two-story house across the street was on fire.

Martinez said he didn’t bother to put shoes on as they ran outside to the burning duplex, where he called 911 with Ramirez’s cellphone.

Martinez said he took his shirt off and wrapped it around his head and face, then tried to go through the front door; heavy black smoke barred his entry.

He said he then heard voices coming from the roof.

Ramirez said he found a ladder at a neighbor’s house and held it steady as Martinez climbed to the front porch roof.

Once Martinez reached the roof, he saw one man through the window and pulled him to safety. The man kept yelling that his brother was still inside and tried to go back to him, Martinez said.

Martinez told the man to stay put. He said he called to the crowd that he needed another shirt to further mask his face from the acrid smoke; a man threw his shirt up to him.

Both Stauch brothers were still yelling to each other as Martinez went through the window again. He said he called out to the brother still inside the duplex, but after 20 seconds, the man’s voice faded and Martinez said he had to get out because he could no longer breathe.

Firefighters then arrived and rescued the man. However, the brothers’ dog, a pit bull named Angel, perished.

When fire crews arrived, the back of the duplex and its detached garage were in flames.

Flammables from the garage set off small explosions. The garage contained cylinders of oxygen, acetylene gas and other accelerants, said St. Paul Assistant Fire Chief Jim Smith.

At one point, he said, firefighters found a welding gas cylinder that launched after exploding, landing across the street between two houses.

Smith said investigators were looking at the fire’s origin and cause but said it was deliberately set.

Later Monday morning, Cassey Johnson, 24, said that she and her father, Dennis Johnson, and his girlfriend lived in the first-floor apartment of the duplex owned by Dennis Johnson. She identified Louis and Richard Stauch and said they lived on the second floor.

Cassey Johnson said she, her father and his girlfriend weren’t home when the fire broke out.

Tom Lloyd, who lives across the street and was in his garage right before the fire, said the first sounds he heard were popping noises. He said he initially thought they were fireworks, but soon afterward, he saw a fiery orange blaze.

“It was frightening,” he said of the intense flames.

Several paint cans were also in the garage, which Cassey Johnson said likely contributed to the explosions. Her father had remodeled recently and was painting the house, she said.

Smith said the gas and oxygen cylinders appeared to be legal, though they are most commonly used by commercial businesses.

The garage is a total loss and fire damaged the duplex extensively, he said. Vinyl siding melted on a house next door.

The Johnsons’ Labrador retriever, named Savannah, escaped the fire. The dog had just been at the vet for a week with liver complications, she said.

“She just survived that, and now this happened,” Cassey Johnson said.

Later Monday afternoon, Louis and Richard Stauch’s sister, Diane Stauch, came by the duplex and greeted Ricardo Martinez, whose actions were also praised by Smith.

“Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart. I can’t believe that someone so young would put your own life on the line to save my brothers,” Stauch said.

“I’m just glad I did what I did,” Martinez had said earlier. “What would’ve happened if I didn’t do anything?”

Ginger Pinson contributed to this report. The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.