SCREAMS SCARED Rudy Harmon out of bed. Jackie Toledo awoke to smoke. Kevin Ford smelled it too and went searching for the source in his Feltonville house before looking out the window early yesterday.
Outside, neighbors poured into a street thick with smoke billowing off a blaze devouring Rasheedah Wilson's house.
As block captain, Wilson was well-known and loved by everyone on Palethorp Street near Loudon. As some neighbors sprinted to call 9-1-1, others hunted for a safe way into the rowhouse, where they feared the family was trapped.
But searing flames kept would-be rescuers out, and there would be no escape.
After firefighters doused the 1:30 a.m. blaze, they made the grim discovery: Wilson, 33, and her children, Jamar Nobles, 14; Minyan Wilson, 12, and Shanai Patterson, 8, had perished in the second-floor bedrooms, unable to find their way out.
The home, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers told reporters at the scene, had only one smoke detector, and that had no batteries in it.
The tragedy had another sad twist. Ayers said later that the first firefighters who arrived at the scene encountered a man who was standing outside Wilson's burning house.
"The lieutenant asked him if anybody was inside, but he said, 'No, everybody's out,' " Ayers said.
A short while later, the man told firefighters that he had been referring to his house, which was two doors away from Wilson's.
Ayers said preliminary reports suggest that five to seven minutes elapsed before firefighters learned that Wilson and her children were inside the burning rowhouse.
A firefighter dashed into the house but had to call a mayday when he was unable to see where he was going because of the thick smoke and heavy flames, Ayers said.
By the time the flames were knocked down enough for firefighters to make their way to the second floor, Wilson and her children were dead.
Ayers said the "miscommunication" between the neighbor and firefighters is being investigated by the fire marshal, who is also tasked with determining what ignited the inferno.
Throughout the day, neighbors deposited stuffed animals and candles on the sidewalk in a makeshift memorial to a family they mourned as "polite and right."
"They were really nice, polite, respectful kids," said Harmon, 35, who lives across the street from the Wilson home.
The family had lived on the block for about five years, neighbors said. As block captain, Wilson organized block parties and other festivities. She adored children and worked at a day-care center; during summer breaks, she made kids lunch and gave out snacks, Toledo said.
"She was a really good singer - she sang church music and [popular] music. She sang at home and at weddings and funerals. She had a beautiful voice," said Hakim Geiger, 43, her next-door neighbor.
Jamar was an eighth-grader at the Feltonville Arts & Sciences School. He liked playing video games and basketball, riding bikes and playing pool, his friends said. His buddies sometimes called him "Zorro" because he once jokingly wore a black Zorro-style mask, they said.
"Just a good kid: She'd send him to the store, and he didn't complain, rain, sleet or snow," Harmon said.
Minyan was a sixth-grader at Boone Middle School, and Shanai was a second-grader at the Clara Barton School, said Tatyana Adams, 11.
"They were my best friends," Tatyana said, as she watched firefighters clean the scene.
The girls all loved Justin Bieber, and they spent Wednesday - a snow day, so they were off school - building a snow fort and making up new dances for their favorite Bieber tunes, Tatyana said.
The girls walked to school daily with Kevin and Elizabeth Ford's two children.
"This just breaks my heart," said Kevin Ford, who lives around the corner on Loudon. "So young."