NEW YORK -- Fire quickly burned through a four-apartment house that had no smoke detectors early Thursday on Staten Island, killing four children and their mother whom neighbors described as a close-knit, loving family.
The children were 2, 7, 10 and 14, and lived with their mother in a second-floor apartment of the two-story building. The tenants in the other three apartments got out safely.
"We keep trying to remind people that a simple $10 or $15 smoke detector could have made a difference in saving five lives here," Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano said at a news conference at the fire scene.
The mother, 32-year-old Lisa Jones, attended a beauty school during the day, neighbors said.
"She came out here to try to make a better life for her kids," said her friend Shaquawna Meaders, 25, who lived down the street and was at Jones' apartment Wednesday night.
Jones came from Trinidad; the children's father lived on the island of Jamaica.
"Everywhere she went, if they weren't in school, the kids were always with her," said Meaders, tears streaming down her face.
Meaders identified the children as 2-year-old Jermaine, 7-year-old Melanie, 10-year-old Brittany and 14-year-old C.J.
Jones' downstairs neighbor, Criseena Lee, who escaped unharmed, also described Jones as a devoted mother.
"She was trying to better her life for her and her children," she said. Jones had lived in the building for about one year and "took care of her kids very well," Lee said.
"The kids were sweet, very innocent," she said. Lee's children, ages 6 and 10, played with Jones' kids, and they went to the pool together, she said.
Meaders described the last evening at her friend's apartment as "a nice night," with C.J. singing and making them all laugh.
The blaze was very heavy when firefighters arrived on the scene shortly after receiving the call at around 4:15 a.m. The fire in the Port Richmond section was declared under control about an hour and a half later.
The fire originated in Jones' apartment and quickly moved through the attic space and roof, fire officials said.
Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer said a firefighter was able to get Jermaine out of the burning apartment because the boy was near the front door. The other children were in the middle of the apartment and the mother was toward the rear, he said.
Jermaine was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Nicholas Cotton, who lived in the other second-floor apartment with his girlfriend, Shannon Barbach, said they were awakened by banging. He went to the window and saw people outside yelling, "Fire!"
He didn't see anything until he opened his bathroom door and saw flames shooting through the wall from Jones' apartment on the other side.
Cotton's apartment had two exits, but Jones' had only one, he said.
The fire mostly destroyed Jones' apartment and the roof; the facade of the first floor and the part of the second floor where Cotton's apartment was located did not appear to have fire damage.
According to fire official's preliminary investigation, it does not appear that the fire is suspicious. The investigation is continuing.