An early morning fire gutted a ranch-style home in this small Metro East city Friday, killing a mother and her three children, authorities said.

The woman, whose name was not immediately released, was 32 years old, Deputy St. Clair Coroner Curt Schildknecht said. He identified the children as a 9-year-old boy and two girls, ages 10 and 11.

Neighbor Fletcher Richardson said before firefighters arrived after midnight, the mother's boyfriend was in the front yard, repeatedly screaming: "My family, my family!" The boyfriend was unable to get into the house because the flames were so hot.

Richardson said he could feel the fire's heat from his home across the street.

"The flames were just high," Richardson said. "You could feel the flames way over here."

The fire ate half of the roof and melted the awnings in the front of the house, leaving mostly a charred shell. Yellow police tape surrounded the home, which sat on a small street lined with other ranch-style houses.

Fire marshals were still investigating the scene several hours later.

"It was just tragic last night," Richardson said.

One of the mother's friends, Tomicia Taylor, 29, described the victim as a dynamo, saying she worked as a nurse while raising three kids and also attending school.

"She was a warrior, so strong. She fought for her kids," Taylor said.

Taylor also said the children were fun-loving and cheerful.