Eddie Nance blushed, glanced down at his shoes, and said, "I'm just glad I could be of help."

This from a man who had just saved three children from a smoke-choked room, and experienced one of the most terrifying episodes in his life.

"It was the type of situation where those kids could have died," D.C. Fire Lt. Nathaniel Morgan said about the blaze that trapped the children in a basement apartment at 804 Taylor St. NE. They had been alone and one of them had turned on the stove.

Nance, 30, had been on lunch hour from his job as a lot attendant at the city's auto impoundment center. He was visiting his girlfriend Sandy, who is staying with her sister-in-law down the street. He was just about to leave.

"All of a sudden, one of her sister-in-law's friends bolted through the door and said they needed my help. She said there were some kids who couldn't get out of this apartment where a fire had started."

Nance raced up the block.Distraught neighbors had clustered along the narrow alley of the building, wondering what to do next. Both the apartment door and all three windows were bolted and shielded with metal gratings. Through the windows, they could see smoke rolling about the room.

"We got a chair and started prying open the grating on the windows with our hands. We each took parts of it and just kept on pulling."

When the grating finally gave, Nance took a deep breath, kicked in the window pane and dove into a smoke-filled kitchen. There were few flames, but the smoke was thick. "The next morning, when I sneezed and coughed, all this black soot came out of my nostrils," he recalled.

In an adjoining room three terrified children -- Daniel, 6, Katrina, 3, and Luquicia, 2 -- cowered in a corner.

"They started smiling when they saw help on the way," Nance said. He struggled with the front door, but couldn't budge it. "Now I was getting scared myself. I was terrified. I'd never been in a situation like that before."

The window, with glass jutting from the panes, was the only alternative. Nance herded the children back into the kitchen, where burning food on the stove -- which fire officials later said caused the fire -- was sending out black smoke. One by one he lifted them through the window to the waiting arms of neighbors.

By the time the fire trucks arrived, the chldren were out of danger and unhurt.

Nance was pulled out of the apartment by firefighters. "I was really beat. I was glad to be out of there," he said.

Nance received several cuts on his arms from the shattered window pane. But he refused medical assistance.

Willard and Verada Black, the children's parents, returned home two and a half hours later and heard the story of their children's resuce from neighbors.

"We know we made a mistake (leaving the children alone in the apartment), but we had to take the baby to the hospital," said Verada Black, glancing at her fourth child, 4-month-old Victoria.

"She had a 103-degree fever. I was going to go alone, but it was raining and he (Willard) decided to go with me. They took a lot of tests on the baby and they wanted us to wait."

"They said Katrina had turned on the stove. "I tried but I couldn't turn it off," said Daniel. "Then he started crying," Katrina said.

Nance, meanwhile, shrugged it all off. "(What I did) wasn't much," he said. "They were beautiful kids."