Vanessa Danielson had been tormented by her abusive ex-boyfriend for years, friends and neighbors said. She tried to get away. She got a restraining order against him after he broke into her northeast Minneapolis home, broke her windows and repeatedly threatened to kill her.

But a restraining order is just a piece of paper, her friends said, and early Thursday, they awoke to a nightmare.

Danielson, 36, who lived in an upper duplex in the 2900 block of Taylor Street NE., fell down the outside staircase, afire. She died later at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC).

Dawn Aherns lives with her fiancé, Jeff Peterson, two doors down. She was there when Danielson stumbled across the street, severely burned.

Danielson was awake and conscious. She told Aherns that her ex-boyfriend had set her on fire.

"She kept saying, 'Help me! When are they [the ambulance] going to get here? Pray for me,' " Aherns said.

She said she held Danielson's hands for what "felt like an eternity" until paramedics arrived.

"I honest to god didn't expect her to die," Aherns said.

Authorities said the fire broke out around 6:45 a.m. in the upper level of the duplex. The flames were extinguished within minutes.

An officer located the suspect outside a few blocks from the duplex, near Central Avenue NE., police spokesman Corey Schmidt said. The man also is at HCMC and in critical condition with burns, but he is expected to survive. His identity has yet to be disclosed.

"We do know that there was information that some earlier threats were made by the suspect to burn down the house," Schmidt said.

A man who lives below where the fire started said he heard the woman yell in reference to the suspect, " 'He's going kill me! He's going to kill me! He's got a gun!' "

The woman screamed again, and that's when he spotted the flames and put a blanket over the victim, the neighbor said. The neighbor, who declined to identify himself, said he called police.

A police report noted that officers came to the home about 2:45 a.m. Thursday, after Danielson called police, saying she was "threatened by her boyfriend and believes he will kill her," but the suspect was gone by then.

Officers have been to Danielson's home multiple times on domestic calls dating to May 2016, according to police reports.

Elizabeth Lewis, who lives next-door to Danielson, said they were good friends. Lewis baked cookies and brought flowers to her when her cat died recently.

Lewis said Danielson liked music, children and going for walks.

"She liked hanging out with us, too," Lewis' 9-year-old daughter, Delilah, said.

Said Lewis, "She was a kind, loving, selfless person who deserved better than what happened."

"The last time the girls were over there, they were watching her put on makeup," she said.

Peterson knew Danielson in passing, as a neighbor more than a friend.

"You never really saw her when he [the ex-boyfriend] was there," he said. "When he was gone, she started to come out of the house."

"My sister's death was caused by a horrible predator," Matt Danielson, Vanessa's brother, said Thursday night. "She had multiple sclerosis. ... She was only about 80 pounds soaking wet. She was weak physically and mentally and didn't have the ability to keep these monsters out of her life.

"My family and I did everything we could to help her, but people like this guy prey on weak people like her," he said.

Peterson and Aherns said Danielson got a restraining order this past summer after the ex-boyfriend broke every window in the house. He went to jail but showed up again a week or so ago.

Court records show that Danielson has been in a sometimes violent relationship with a 44-year-old man who has served time in prison for terroristic threats and drug possession. She had a court grant an order for protection from him, which he violated. The two share a young son, a filing from May 2016 noted.

Court filings also revealed another man in her life who became her boyfriend. This man, 32, also has a criminal history, one filing read.

The fire appeared to have largely been contained to the second floor but also extended into the attic and the eaves, fire officials added.

The duplex showed extensive charring from the flames Thursday evening.

The downstairs resident lost everything, the neighbors said, but the landlord found him another place to live, at least temporarily.

Staff writer Libor Jany and staff photographer David Joles contributed to this report.

Pat Pheifer • 612-673-7252

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482