Nancy Self lost four children Saturday in the time it took a fire to sweep through her Division Street home.
"What did I do so bad that they took my kids?" Self, 40, asked neighbor Maria Rivera as firefighters worked frantically to save her daughter, three sons, a grandson and a friend.
A fast-moving fire tore through her home at 206 Division St. shortly after 5 a.m., killing Self's children: Nancy, 17; Elijah, 15; Bryan, 13 ; and Scott, 8. Nancy "Daisy" Self's boyfriend, Vincent Manning, 22, and their 7-month-old son, Vincent Manning II, alsodied.
Only Self and her boyfriend, Kenneth Ketter, 46, escaped what appears to be the deadliest fire in Schenectady in decades.
"Everybody's gone. Everybody's gone," a shaken Ketter said as he and Self left police headquarters after interviews with detectives Saturday. Ketter said the blinding smoke and intense heat stopped him from going after the others.
"We woke up and the house was on fire. I couldn't save anybody," he said as his brother, George Ketter, tried to comfort him.
Authorities had not pinpointed a cause of the fire Saturday. Police and neighbors said it was the third fire on Division Street in the past two weeks. Investigators were trying to determine whether there was a link between those relatively minor incidents and Saturday's blaze.
"This is a tremendous loss, and we're going to find out what the cause was," Mayor Brian U. Stratton said after a briefing from police and fire officials.
Schenectady fire investigators and agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent several hours examining the burned-out building for clues. Dogs from the state's Office of Fire Prevention and Control sniffed the blackened debris for signs that fuel might have been used to hasten the spread of the fire.
Police said the home had no functioning smoke detectors. One had been installed, but it had no battery.
Firefighters arrived two minutes after the blaze was reported at 5:18 a.m. and managed to pull the six people from the burning building. Paramedics worked on the children in the street before the victims were taken to St. Clare's and Ellis hospitals.
All along Division Street, shocked parents and crying children spent much of the day watching firefighters clean up the burned house where their young friends had lived.
The children hung out next door, playing pool with 18-year-old Noneen Van Buren in the basement. "They were good friends of the whole neighborhood," she said.
Scott, the youngest, liked karate and played Little League, neighbors said. "Scottie was lonely. He liked to have kids around to play with," said Darlene Van Buren, whose son played with the boy.
On the day in April when Rivera and her family moved in next door, the boys introduced themselves and offered to help unpack. Later that week, Rivera said, she awoke at 6:30 a.m. to the sounds of Elijah mowing their front yard.
"He said, 'I just saw that it was growing long,' " Rivera said. He didn't ask to be paid, she said.
Bryan, described as playful, wanted to spend Friday night at the home of his girlfriend, Niasia Coleman, 13, but their mothers would not let him. Both attended Central Park Middle School and had dated for about four months.
Through her tears, Niasia said she walked Bryan home about 11 p.m. They made plans to meet up again Saturday.
The children's father, Elijah Self, appeared briefly at the home Saturday but declined to speak to reporters.
Twins Eric and John Keenan III, 22, sat on their porch, looking dazed. Their family had moved in last week. "Sometimes you don't think, you just react," said their father as he leaned against a porch column, watching the fire inspectors tear through the ashes. "And they reacted good. If they could have just reacted sooner."
Neighbors said the old homes are solid wood, with little between walls to slow the path of flames.
Several of them gave the following account of the night's events:
Rivera's usually quiet toy rat terrier woke the house with his barking shortly after 5 a.m. Moments later, she and her children heard pounding on the door downstairs and Nancy Self yelling, "Call 911! The kids are in the house!"
They called police before running into their shared back yard, hollering the names of the children. Self's hands and arms were black with soot, and they could feel the heat from the fire all around their homes.
Two houses down, the Keenan twins heard the screams, leaped out of bed and raced to the burning house. Eric Keenan put his right fist through the kitchen window and screen, and yelled into the fire, choking on smoke. He cut his forearm, and later needed 11 stitches to close the wound. John put his fist through the back screen but couldn't force the door open.
Smoke kept four police officers from the house. Firefighters had to dampen the flames on the front porch before they could enter the building.
"The firefighters couldn't have been here faster if they were parked here," Rivera said. "They would have had to have been miracle workers to do more."
Neither Ketter nor Self is employed. George Ketter said his brother had suffered disabling heart trouble in recent years, and he worried Saturday that the stress of the fire might kill him.
Self, who relatives said was pregnant, was examined at the hospital, where she and her unborn child were given a clean bill of health.
"Thank God, the baby's all right," her 11-year-old niece, Brittany Akin, said.
Staff writer Matt Pacenza contributed to this story.