A fast-moving fire tore through a rowhouse in an impoverished section of east Baltimore, killing a 65-year-old woman, two of her granddaughters and her 2-year-old great-granddaughter, officials said.

The fire was reported around 11 p.m. Wednesday, and firefighters arrived three minutes later to find flames shooting through the windows on both floors of the home, Fire Chief Jim Clack said Thursday morning.

"We just feel terrible this morning that we couldn't do something more to avert this tragedy," Clack said.

Capt. Roman Clark, a fire department spokesman, tentatively identified the victims as Phillis Rouzer; her granddaughter Ericka Morris, 24; another granddaughter, Nesha Diggs, 14; and Morris' 2-year-old daughter, Tyrese Brown.

Police and fire investigators were investigating the cause of the blaze, which started on the first floor in the front of the home, Clark said. The victims' bodies were found in three upstairs bedrooms, he said, and the home did not appear to have working smoke detectors.

Lionel Green, Rouzer's grandson, said his family history was lost in the fire.

"She was pretty much the archive," Green said of his grandmother. "She had all the family records, from baby birth weights to ages."

On Thursday morning, a backhoe loaded the charred contents of the gutted home into a trash bin. Teddy bears were placed as a memorial on the steps of a home two doors down, and weeping neighbors, friends and relatives gathered to mourn the victims.

Many of the houses in the Oliver neighborhood are vacant, their windows covered with plywood. Anthony Brown, who lives on the next block and is not related to the victims, said the residents who remain often live in substandard conditions.

"This neighborhood here, it's like it's deserted," he said.

Twenty-five people died in fires in Baltimore in 2009, and there were 19 fire deaths the previous year, Clack said. That's down from about 60 deaths per year in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he said.

The fire department donates and installs smoke detectors to residents who can't afford them, and firefighters have made dozens of sweeps through the Oliver neighborhood, he said.

"When we come to your door, let us in. We're not checking on your housekeeping; we're not checking on what you're doing," Clack said. "We're trying to keep you safe."