NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — At least three people are dead after a fire at a home in Elmhurst, Queens, early Saturday.

Investigators are now trying to figure out if illegal conversions inside the apartment played in a role in starting the fire, CBS2’s Christina Fan reported.

Neighbors were woken by the smell of smoke around 5:30 a.m. The towering flames were so intense that families inside had little time to escape. Some ran into the frigid cold wearing flip-flops.

People who live nearby said they could not forget the cries of their neighbors begging to be saved.

Towering flames left families little time to escape a burning home in Elmhurst, Queens. (credit: CBS2)

“It just doesn’t seem real, and then hearing people on the second floor saying help them… I just called 911 right away,” one person said.

A man who lived there described a harrowing escape through the smoke and flames.

“I grabbed what I can. Boots, because I was sleeping. Knocked on several doors just to see if anybody’s here… Once I opened the door, I saw the flames shooting from the basement up. So, if it wasn’t for the basement door creating a barrier, I probably wouldn’t have made it out,” he said.

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Firefighters said all three floors of the complex on 48th Avenue and 91st Street were engulfed in flames when they arrived. It took 140 firefighters to put it out.

As they went to clear the building, firefighters found two bodies on the second floor and one on the third floor.

“We had a large volume of fire on all three floors of the building. In the process of our searches, we have confirmed three [dead on arrival] in the building,” said FDNY Chief of Fire Operations Thomas Richardson.

The fire was under control before 9 a.m., but not before the roof of the home collapsed.

“Due to the large volume of fire, we had an extensive collapse of the roof into the top floor and another part collapsed on the second floor,” Chief Richardson said.

The fire was under control before 9 a.m., but not before the roof of the home collapsed. (credit: CBS2)

Eight people reportedly lived inside. Two people were initially reported to be unaccounted for, but fire officials later said they were not home at the time of the fire and had been found safe.

Neighbors said not only is the building under foreclosure, but there’s a laundry list of complaints surrounding the property listed on the Department of Buildings’ website. They include allegations of squatters and more than 60 people living there at one time.

“I know the second floor apartment was empty since earlier this year, so it’s quite possible that they were there when this took place,” said Fernando Andujar, a neighbor.

In addition to the three known fatalities, four other people were hurt, including a firefighter who fell through one of the floors. Officials said those injured are expected to be OK.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Christina Fan contributed to this report.

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