Four children, aged 3 to 9, died Wednesday night when a fire raced through their home in rural Fauquier County, Va.

An uncle's frantic effort to rescue the children from their homes's second story with a ladder was thwarted by the intensity of the blaze.

Firemen said the four children of Larry and Pearl Gorden-El, Sincerity, 3; Matheno, 4; Hagar, 5, and Larry Jr., 9, were found in their beds on the second floor of the tin-roofed cement and wood home in the tiny community of Sowego.

The blaze apparenty broke out in a wood-burning heater.

It was unclear how the blaze started. Neighbors said they believe that flammable liquid --kerosene or gasoline -- was used to start the heater to dry some of the children's laundry and the fire got out of control, blocking the stairway to the second floor.

Mrs. Gordon-El ran screaming from a back door to summon her brother-in-law, Morris Payne, whose house is about 50 feet away, and he helped her rescue her father-in-law from a first floor bedroom.

Payne said he "knew the children were upstairs, so I ran and got a ladder. But the pressure of the smoke and heat knocked me off."

"We didn't have a chance to save anybody," said Chief William Smith of the Catlett Volunteer Fire Co. Smith's company, nine miles from the blaze was the first of three in the area to respond to the alarm. "By the time we got there flames were coming out every window."

Yesterday a group of friends and relatives gathered behind the charred home to talk quietly and stare at the blackened mess inside.

Spread across the back yard were burnt pieces of furniture, including an old barber's chair, scorched pages from a dictionary and some melted kitchen utensil. Hanging above it all were clotheslines bearing children's shirts and pants.

Neither Pearl nor Larry Gordon-El were at their home yesterday. Some of those who were, however, were bitter.

One subject of contention was the statement by sheriff's deputies that a "$20 smoke detector could have saved them."

"Now how could a smoke detector do anything when the mother was right there when the stove exploded?" asked a woman at the Sowego Market, the neighborhood general store half a mile from the fire.

Fire Chief Smith said he could not verify the report that a flammable liquid in the wood heater had caused the fire. But he said that theory, accepted as truth by the neighborhood, "make a lot of sense."

"That house went up too fast to explain," said Smith. Another firefighter on the scene commented that Sowego and Greenville, another rural area in Fauquier County with old and wooden homes, contribute "50 percent of our calls."