by KERRY BURKE and LEO STANDORA
A raging fire killed three children - one a 20-month-old girl - and an elderly man who tried to rescue them from their burning Queens home last night, officials said.
Firefighters found the little victims in a basement apartment at 40-77 Denman St. in Elmhurst. Their mother, Jennifer Gaston, 27, managed to get two of her other children to safety before collapsing on the street.
Two boys, Christian, 5, and Richie, 6, died in a closet, where they were hiding from the inferno. Little Jocelyn perished in her crib.
Israel Gonzalo, 88, who lived upstairs in the two-story house and had difficulty walking, apparently tried to rescue the screaming youngsters but collapsed and died outside their apartment door.
"This is a terrible, terrible tragedy," said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who was on the scene with investigators. "It's an especially sad thing because it's the holiday season."
Brown said his team hoped to get a detailed account of what happened from the mother, who was in shock and unable to talk to anyone. She managed to pull a son, Brandon, 8, and daughter, Ashley, 6 months, from the flames.
Chief Fire Marshal Louis Garcia stressed that the blaze, which began in the basement and quickly spread to the attic, "was not suspicious."
He said investigators were looking into the possibility that it was started by a faulty electric blanket or contact between a bed and a heater.
"This is a nightmare," said the youngsters' uncle George Gaston, who lives across the street. "These were really nice kids, beautiful children. I can't imagine how this happened."
The uncle's roommate, social worker Jose Genao, 36, described the smoke and flames coming from the house as "overwhelming," but said the mother was screaming for help and heading back in when she collapsed.
David Done, 50, a refrigerator repairman who lives in the building, said he was coming home from work about 6 p.m. when he saw the flames and heard the desperate mother screaming, "My kids are still in there!"
Done said the fire "didn't look so bad" so he started to go into the house to see what he could do, but firefighters arrived and stopped him.
Genao shook his head sadly and said, "Not too long ago we were with the kids at a birthday party. They were great, very happy, and their mother loved them. It's hard to believe they're gone just like that."
Twenty-one people lived in the building, which a fire source said had been illegally divided into apartments.
Fire Department spokesman Ken Bohan said it took more than 100 firefighters about three hours to bring the flames under control. One firefighter suffered a shoulder injury.
The blaze appeared to be the most deadly in New York since a fire killed a couple and their five daughters in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, in June 2002.
With Oren Yaniv