With her family away, Cynthia L. Robb died alone Monday, victim of a fire that claimed her as she nearly escaped out the front door of her Edina home.

Outside, neighbors Dan Starkey and Roger McVeety went to the door while firefighters were en route, hoping -- like all good friends along Oaklawn Avenue -- that there might be a rescue.

"It's a tight-knit neighborhood," said Ralph Peterson, 80, who lives across the street and remembered Robb, 54, as an energetic presence there.

The blaze, first reported at 4:47 a.m, may have burned as long as three hours. Fire Chief Marty Scheerer said that its cause is under investigation, but a preliminary review suggested that it began in the electrical system within a basement ceiling. Robb, known to friends as Cindy, was dead when firefighters arrived, he said.

"It looks like she was close to getting out," Scheerer said.

At the time of the fire, Robb's husband, Peter, was away from home with a daughter, Melissa, Starkey said. Within hours of the fire, Peter Robb and their two daughters were back at the Starkeys, and the neighbors came with food.

While smoke detectors were not sounding, Scheerer said, it was believed that they were operable and may have been exhausted from extended use during the fire.

Oaklawn Avenue is up a hill from Minnehaha Creek and two blocks east of Edina Country Club. Dan Starkey said everyone there knows everyone, and no one wants to leave.

The Starkeys live on one side of the Robb family, the McVeetys on the other. Starkey said that his dog began barking when it smelled smoke, and soon afterward, Roger McVeety was at his door. Together they went to the Robb residence, where they could see flames shooting from beneath the dining room window next to the front door.

"I was going to open it. It was ajar," Starkey said. "But I remembered -- you're not supposed to do that."

Firefighters were there within about 30 seconds, he said.

To Scheerer, the blaze was an example of why homes should have sprinklers. State legislation is pending, he said, to mandate automatic fire sprinklers in new homes.

The Robb residence in the 5300 block of Oaklawn Avenue was built in 1936.

Peterson, standing in his driveway with his dog, Prince, recalled Monday the times he went to the Robb house so that the "always helpful" Cindy could get airline tickets for him.

"She always had something nice to say," Peterson said. "Very pleasant. Bubbly. I'm sure that she had a lot of people that loved her."

Starkey, asked about his neighbor's work life, deferred comment to the family. But when told of Peterson's observations, he quickly added: "And she was one helluva cook."

The Robbs' youngest daughter, Catherine, a student at the University of Minnesota, also grew up at the Oaklawn Avenue residence, and had been like a sister to Starkey's daughter, Kelly, when the two were little.

The two hadn't been as close in high school, Starkey said, but when Catherine came home Monday, "she wanted to know where Kelly was," he said.

Across the street, Val McVeety, whose husband had rushed with Starkey to the Robb house, spoke briefly with four neighbors gathered in Peterson's driveway. She reminisced about the two girls when they were babies.

Before stepping away, McVeety told the four friends to expect a call later. The neighbors, she said, would soon be talking about what they could do now to help the family.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109