Theresa Savary sat on a kitchen stool yesterday holding a snapshot of her three children. Strewn about were notes expressing grief and condolence. The phone rang constantly and there were still more letters in the day's mail, one with a check for $100 and a note that began "Words cannot express my feelings. . . ."

Savary, 23, stroked the faces in the picture, and as the pain welled up again, her sister-in-law, John Savary, hugged her close. "They were so beautiful," Theresa whispered. "So loving, so protective of each other. . ." b

In the living room, Lorene Savary -- mother of Theresa's husband, John -- said, "We've never had a tragedy like this."

John and Theresa Savary's three young sons, Jason, Joseph and Philip, were killed Thursday in a sudden fire that swept through their apartment in a Gaithersburg housing development.

Country fire officials investigating the blaze still cannot explain what caused it. Theresa Savary had left her children for a few minutes to do her laundry and call her mother. When she returned, she had to be restrained from running into the burning apartment.

"I feel bereft. I question why such things happen," said Lorence Savary.

"Somehow I believe there is a reason. I know there are no whys, but I've asked the question over and over."

Theresa Savary remembered Christmas plans for her children that had come to naught.

"I was going to let Jason and Joey string pop corn and cranberries this year," she said. "They were going to help me. I loved my kids. I tried to teach them what was right and what was wrong."

"The twins," said grandfather Calvert Savary, "were just getting to the age where it was fun to play with them. I'd blow up balloons and push them across the room on tricycles."

A memento the Savarys managed to salvage from the fire when they went back Friday was a Christmas decoration they called "PJ's ball," a satin bulb given to Philip for his first Christmas last year. up on the tree."

Still numb with disbelief, Theresa and her husband, who works at Montgomery Scrap Corp., have moved temporarily into the basement of John's parent's home, a small barn-red cottage in Rockville.

There, buoyed by a constant stream of friends and relatives, they are trying to pick up the pieces. The fire left them bereft of all their belongings too.

But people have come to their aid, so much so that Calvert Savary said, "I don't think I'll ever lose faith in human beings again."

Friends and relatives have brought hams, turkeys, bowls of potato salad and fancy desserts. The Red Cross donated money for food and clothing, and had given the young Savarys a bed. Churches and businesses have taken up collections. A cemetery has donated grave sites and the funeral home contributed its services.

"If we accepted all the offers," said Lorene Savary, "we'd have food from the front to the back of the house."

The family plans to gather for a buffet Christmas day, but it will be a celebration of something other than joy.

The presents that had been bought for the children -- Match Box cars, toy trucks and trains -- the Savarys now plan to send to a home for retarded children in Baltimore. Lorene Savary will set aside the hats and mittens she knitted for her grandsons.

"We'll endure," she said.