A central New York duplex burned Monday morning, killing a mother and her three young children, some of whom banged on the walls as fire tore through the home.
The three children were ages 1, 2 and 4, Utica Fire Chief Russell Brooks said. Their names and the age of the mother weren't released, pending complete family notifications.
"You could hear the kids banging in the house, screaming," said Naronna Nixon, a 26-year-old neighbor. "People were running in the house trying to get the kids out, but there was no hope. The father was just going crazy. It was so sad. The fire was little and then by the time I got to see what actually was going on, it was so big. It happened so fast."
The blaze broke out around 9:30 a.m. in a 2½-story home on the city's west side, fire officials said. When firefighters arrived minutes later, heavy smoke and flames were coming from the first and second floors.
Firefighters were thwarted in their first attempt to search the building when a staircase collapsed. They used hoses to push the flames to the rear of the building and conducted a second search, Brooks said.
The fire was doused about 20 minutes after it was reported, and it was declared completely out by 11:30 a.m.
Fire investigators say preliminary information indicates the fire started on the first floor, spread throughout the entire first floor and then went up the front stairwell to the bedrooms where the victims were located. The cause was not known.
Nixon said her son often played with the children who died.
"They were fun-loving, like any kids," Nixon said. "They were always playing outside, and they had two great parents."
The home had two apartments situated side-by-side. A woman and three children who lived in the other apartment escaped unharmed, said Chief Fire Marshal Raymond J. Beck.
It was the first fatal fire in the city in more than a year, according to deputy fire chief Andre Esposito.
"It's a difficult time," police Sgt. Steve Hauck said, the smell of the charred ruins of the home still heavy in the air. "The family, I couldn't imagine having to deal with that. It was one shot."
Not long after, Utica Mayor David R. Roefaro stared at the home in tempered disbelief.
"It's a horrible tragedy, a mother and her three children," Roefaro said.
Fire department records indicate the apartments were registered, inspected and deemed in compliance, meaning they had working smoke detectors, on May 4, 2010. The certificate is valid for three years. It was not immediately known if the smoke detectors were functioning Monday.