A 27-year-old woman and her three children were killed early yesterday when flames shot through their small walk-up apartment in a Southeast Washington public housing project.

Joyce Skinner, 27, her daughter Kim, 11, and sons Jerry, 5, and William, 18 months, died after Skinner apparently made a frantic effort effort to rescue the three children. A house guest, who said she had waited in vain for Skinner to pass the children out through a bedroom window, escaped injury.

Fire officials classified the blaze as "suspicious" and said it had begun in front of a televison set in the living room. Neighbors reported hearing a series of explosions as the brief but powerful fire ravaged the apartments.

Rita McShay, 19, house guest, said she had been sleeping in the second-floor bedroom with the three children while Joyce Skinner slept on a fold-out couch downstairs in the living room.

"I woke up when I heard Joyce coming up the stairs screaming," McShay said yesterday. "She was saying, 'Oh my Lord, Oh my Lord, get the children out."

McShay said she opened the bedroom window, climbed out onto the roof and asked skinner to hand her the children.

"I yelled to Joyce to hand me the baby, but she never answered me," McShay recalled. "I don't know what happened. I think I had the baby's arm one time, but it slipped away. Then I heard someone telling me to jump off the roof." McShay said she then shinnied down a metal support outside the house.

McShay said she had gone to a nightclub earlier Tuesday night with Joyce Skinner and three other friends. The group drank "a couple of beers" each McShay said, then returned to the Highland Dwellings public housing project where Skinner lived.

Upon arriving at Skinner's apartment, McShay said, she made sandwiches for the children, who had been left with a neighbor. Then she and the family went to bed, she said.

Neighbors described Joyce Skinner as a "nice person" who kept her children clean and neatly dressed. She tried as best she could, they said, to shelter her children from the negative influences of her impoverished neighborhood on the southeast fringes of Washington.

Georgiana Houser, 41, who lived next door to Skinner, said Skinner had a "a lot of problems . . . She wanted to get out of public housing. She wanted a better life for her children. But she couldn't see any way out."

William Knight, 32, who said he was Joyce Skinner's boyfriend and the father of her youngest child, said he and Skinner had plans to marry as soon as he could find a better job. Knight said he currently earns $150 a week as a truck driver.

"I wanted to move her and the children out of public housing and into a house," said Knight, standing in front of the burned-out apartment. "That was her biggest dream, to get out of public housing."

Knight said he gave Skinners about $30 a week to add to the $254 welfare allotment she received every month.

"She really wanted a bigger apartment," said Lemie Dodd, a neighbor, "With two sons and a daughter, she needed a two-bedroom place. I know she'd been begging for one for a least a year, but public housing hadn't done anything."

Dodd was among a number of neighbors who recalled being awakened by a series of two or three explosions.

Skinner's mother, who lives in Oxon Hill, and a brother who lives in Southwest Washington said the family had stayed in regular touch through phone calls and visits.

George Skinner said he had called his sister an hour or two before the fire, but was told by McShay that his sister was asleep downstairs.

Mrs. Skinner said her grand-daughter, Kim, called her twice just hours before the fire."She said she was going to come see me, you know the kind of things kids say. I told her to go to bed so she could go to school in the morning.

"Oh my babies, my grandchildren," Mrs. Skinner said. "I just don't want to believe this thing."