An overnight fire that started in a stairwell tore through a multifamily home, killing three relatives and injuring eight other people, including some who jumped from windows to escape, officials said Wednesday.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano said the deaths were being investigated as a triple homicide, and that state arson specialists had joined local fire officials in the investigation.
Police identified the victims as a 42-year-old woman, her 8-year-old son and her 18-year-old niece. They were found in a third-floor bedroom in the multifamily home, and officials said preliminary reviews showed they died of smoke inhalation.
Some of the injured were rescued by firefighters as flames cornered them on a second-floor porch.
The fire was reported just before 2 a.m. Wednesday in the city's Fair Haven section, New Haven Fire Chief Michael Grant said. The preliminary investigation found it started in a second-floor stairwell and spread to the third floor.
Police say that's where firefighters found the bodies of Wanda Roberson, her son Quayshawn and her niece Jaquitta. Quayshawn was in second grade and Jaquitta was a high school senior, officials said.
Neighbors said Quayshawn's two older brothers also were injured.
Terri Payne, a New Haven woman who said she was Wanda Roberson's cousin, told New England Cable News that she heard disturbing details of the fire when she talked with other residents.
"They just said everything happened so fast that it was crazy," she said. "They didn't know which way to go. When they touched a door knob, it was hot. They didn't know where to go."
City officials said they did not have anyone in custody in connection with the fire but were investigating it as a criminal act. They also were looking for information about a suspicious minivan seen parked near the home Tuesday night.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene of people trying to rescue residents from the burning building and comforting those who had escaped. Amateur video showed people passing young children down from windows.
"I was sleeping and woke up to the sound of screaming, people screaming, `My baby, my baby,' and I saw people lowering children out of the second-floor balcony," Jadine Small told The Hartford Courant. "We're all really sad, especially hearing about the deaths and we're praying for the families involved."
The American Red Cross was working with people displaced by the fire, a spokesman said Wednesday.