"It happened so fast," said 17-year old Janeen Korenoski. "We couldn't get to Helen. The smoke was too thick. She probably panicked,"

The body of 24-year-old Helen Caulkins, clad in a blue flannel nightgown, was found yesterday in her bedroom closet after an early morning two-alarm blaze destroyed the Fairfax County house she shared with five other young people.

"Five of the men and women managed to escape," said Fairfax County fire investigator John White. "We found the victim in the closet, sitting on the floor. There were burns on her wrists and legs. A lot of times children respond to a fire that way. It looked like she was trying to hide from the fire.

"It looked like she panicked," the investigator said.

The fire broke out in the two-story brick home at 2921 Summerfield Rd. near Falls Church shortly after 5 a.m., White said.

"The flames were just gushing out the front door," said one neighbor. "It looked like a flash fire, with flames pouring out the front door and heavy smoke coming out the second floor windows."

According to White, the fire started in the living room and probably was caused by "careless smoking."

Roger Elliot, one of the ground-floor occupants, was the first to spot the flames. "I was downstairs and Roger came running down," said Korenoski, who lives in the basement.

"He told me to get out. We tried to go upstairs, but couldn't. He stated yelling for everyone to get out. We went through the back door."

Two other survivors, 21-year-old Heather Johnson and Doug Arrington, escaped by jumping from the second-story roof over the front porch. Another unidentified man also escaped from a second-story window, Korenoski said.

Fire officials estimated the damage to the house, which the group had shared since April, at about $20,000.

According to White, the group had "talked about a fire detector, but hadn't gotten around to it. If they had," said the fire inspector, "they probably all would have gotten out in time."