Fourteen-year-old Rayquan Livingston had high hopes for his 8-year-old cousin, "Shownee."
"I visited every week," said Livingston, who said he played basketball with the second-grader just days ago. "I just wanted to teach him how to stay out of trouble and how not to talk back to his mother. He was like my little brother."
Quay Shawn "Shownee" Roberson Alexander died in a fire early Wednesday along with his mother, Wanda, 42, and a cousin, Jaquitta Roberson, 18.
Police believe the fire was set intentionally and are investigating the deaths as homicides.
The fire is believed to have started about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in a second-floor stairwell of the Wolcott Street house, New Haven Fire Chief Michael Grant said. The fire raced through the third floor of the house where the Robersons were sleeping, Grant said.
"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," said Jadine Small, a neighbor. "I saw a 6-year-old dropped down from a second-floor balcony."
Grant said more than a dozen people were inside the four-unit apartment building at 48-50 Wolcott St., when the fire broke out. The first floor was vacant.
Firefighters rescued two people from a porch on the second floor and helped several others escape through windows, a back entrance and the front door. A girl broke her ankle jumping from a second floor window, said Lynn Roberson, Wanda Roberson's sister.
Eleven people were brought to an area hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, according to Adam Joseph, director of communications for the city of New Haven. After they were released from the hospital, they were in the care of the American Red Cross, he said.
Lynn Roberson, who lives around the corner from her sister's house, said she ran to the house when she saw that it was on fire and saw survivors covered in soot.
There was just one exit from the third floor - a back staircase, according to Grant. By the time firefighters arrived, that exit was blocked by flames. The three victims "were entrapped by fire," he said.
"From my understanding, my sister was yelling from the third floor trying to get everybody out," Lynn Roberson said. "My niece and nephew, I think had inhaled enough smoke because they never woke up."
The bodies were found in a third-floor bedroom, officials said. Preliminary reports indicated that they died of smoke inhalation, officials said.
Shownee Roberson was in the second grade at Clinton Avenue School. Jaquitta was a senior at Hillhouse High School and recently had been accepted for an internship, family members said.
"[Wanda] will be greatly missed. Everyone loved her," Lynn Roberson said.
Friends and neighbors stood outside the charred building consoling one another and offering memories of the Roberson family.
"She was always a quiet and peaceful person," said Ann Jones, a high school classmate of Wanda's. "She was a good mother. It looks like [the suspect] got everyone they wanted to get to."
Throughout Wednesday, police were looking for a dark-colored minivan that witnesses said was seen in front of the house Tuesday night.
"Our job is to find justice," Police Chief Frank Limon said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon. He said 10 detectives from the New Haven Police Department and the state police arson unit are investigating the fire and interviewing potential suspects.
Limon would not comment on whether any arrests had been made, but he said more than a dozen people were brought in for questioning on Wednesday.
City records indicate that the building, a two-and-a-half story tenement built in 1900, is owned by Lili Khorsandi. It has no code violations, according to city records.
The interior was renovated in 2003, and smoke detectors were installed as part of the renovation. Sprinklers were not required.
Khorsandi purchased the building in 2008. In May 2010, December 2010 and January 2011, the building passed multiple two-year residential inspections and was given a license to maintain residential units. The test indicated that each unit had a working smoke detector, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano said.
He said Khorsandi owns three other properties in New Haven, and owes back taxes on all of them. He said Khorsandi does not owe taxes on the Wolcott Street building.
The building has two apartments on the first floor and two on the second floor. Bedrooms for the second floor are on the third floor. No one was renting the first-floor units.
Khorsandi had not returned a call seeking comment Wednesday night.
Courant staff writers Josh Kovner and Hilda Munoz and Fox CT reporters Anthony DiLorenzo and George Colli contributed to this story. An Associated Press report is also included.