Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said the fire also likely destroyed five houses and displaced at least 30 people. He said it took firefighters 7 to 8 minutes to get to the scene instead of the usual 3 to 4 minutes because a dispatcher misunderstood a caller.
But the mayor told The Associated Press that officials do not believe the delay cost lives because the home was already engulfed when the first calls came in.
"The calls indicated the house was already engulfed in flames," Fulop said. "It was already a multi-alarm fire out of the gate."
The fire happened on Jersey City's Grant Avenue, but the mayor said an initial caller did not specify the street or avenue, and a dispatcher thought the person said "Grand" instead of "Grant." Firefighters were routed to Grand Street instead of Grant Avenue.
"The 911 dispatchers are obviously trained to deal with high-pressure situations," Fulop said. "But in the mix-up, the caller didn't distinguish ... You're dealing with people in the heat of the moment, and it's hard to get them to answer questions. That issue was part of it."
The fire swept through part of a block of row houses. Authorities recovered two bodies by late morning, and brought out two other bodies later in the day.
Authorities hadn't released the identities of the dead by Thursday afternoon, but neighbors and people who said they knew the family said the victims were a pastor and his wife and children. Before the bodies were found, the mayor said a couple in their 80s and their two sons, who are in their 50s, were unaccounted for.
Carolyn Oliver-Fair, of Jersey City, and Bernadine Byrd, of Newark, said pastor William Pickett often held services at his house and also preached in Newark and other areas.
"He was just a likable, lovable guy," Oliver-Fair said. "This is absolutely devastating. It's a tragic loss for the community."
Authorities haven't said what they believe caused the fire.
As stunned neighbors looked on, firefighters used a ladder truck to peer into the second floor of the charred structure.
A man who lives across the street said he had returned home at about 1 a.m. after celebrating his 40th birthday when he looked out his window to make sure he'd turned out all the lights in his car.
"I saw the flames coming out of the first floor entrance," Charles Davis said. "At some point the wind was blowing the fire across the street and into the other houses, and they had to evacuate everybody."
Video shot by Davis appeared to show a man running up to the house and trying to enter as the fire raged, only to be grabbed by police. Davis said he heard the man shouting, "My grandmother is in there!"
Fulop said the fire broke out during a particularly difficult week for the Jersey City Fire Department. A funeral is scheduled for Friday for Fire Captain Gregory Barnas, a 29-year veteran of the department who also volunteered with the Wallington Fire Department. Barnas was killed last week after falling from the roof of a burning restaurant in Wallington.