William Pickett Jr. "hollered" desperately in Jersey City, N.J., Thursday morning as he watched the building where his parents and two brothers lived and kept church services burned down in flames while they were all trapped inside.
"I hollered, but the cop wouldn't let me in because the fire was shooting out the building," Pickett told the Jersey Journal.
It was a terrible 4-alarm blaze. Neighbors in the working class community where it erupted, found it spectacularly stunning.
"It looked like a movie scene; the flames just went whoosh, like an explosion," Kirk Campbell, 26, told The New York Times.
When it was all over, Pickett's father, the Rev. Bishop William Pickett, 81; his mother, Elumae Pickett, 80; his brother, Thomas Pickett, 52; and another brother, Curtis Pickett, 49, were pronounced dead. The brothers, says the Journal, had "special needs."
The small church Pickett's parents ran from the basement of their home, the House of David Pentecost Church, also died in the flames. Just hours prior to the fire, according to the Journal, the family had gathered in the basement to study the Bible and praise God.
Neighbors said they smelled smoke and saw orange flames at about 1 a.m. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said the first panicked call about the fire was received at 1:07 a.m. But there was a mix-up. Firefighters were reportedly sent to the wrong address at first, which delayed the response to the fire by about four to five minutes.
"It was a very unfortunate situation," Fulop told the Times. "It is impossible to know" if the mix-up caused the deaths in the fire.
"The time that the first call came the house was already in flames," he explained. "We're going to have to do an investigation. It's not as if anybody wanted this to happen."
It was nearly an hour later at 2 a.m. before Pickett would learn of the unfolding tragedy. His daughter told him in a frantic call.
"My father, mother, brothers -- they can't find them," he told the Journal hours before they were confirmed dead.
Neighbors described the family as pillars of the community and their close relatives only had kind words to say.
Lynnis Golden, 28, father of one of pastor Pickett's grandchildren, told the Times that he kicked in the door of the home before firefighters arrived Thursday morning because he wanted to save the preacher who made him change his life last year.
"He told me I could be whoever I wanted to be; it helped me stop doing bad things," said Golden. "When I broke the door open, there was nothing but flames."
Longtime family friend pastor Bernadine Byrd, 62, said Elumae Pickett, "loved to sing…when she spoke, it was wisdom." Her two sons, she explained, were "very friendly" and "enjoyed being in church while pastor Pickett had "a booming voice" and often "spoke of love, unity and peace."
"He was a patient man who loved peace," said Byrd of pastor Pickett. "If you met him once, you'd feel like you've known him all his life."