Jeremy Benthall was born on June 12 weighing just 17 ounces -- five ounces less than his identical twin brother Joseph.

Their mother was told that her little boys did not have much chance of surviving and that things looked especially bleak for Jeremy.

Yesterday, both boys were sleeping sweetly in their incubators, and Dr. John Scanlon, director of neonatology at Columbia Hospital for Women, said that Jeremy "as far as I know, is one of the smallest babies I've heard of that has survived."

"Every once in a while, you get a freak of nature, and a baby that small will live," said Scanlon, who is spearheading the round-the-clock care that Jeremy and his brother are getting in the infant intensive care ward. Joseph is doing fine, he said, and Jeremy's chances are excellent but "ther is a small but definite cloud over the kid's horizon."

Dr. Marvin Cornblath, of the National Institute of Child Health and Development, said that although the insitute keeps no statistics on the survival of babies with low birthweight, "It's quite a feat to have twins that small and have them survive. It's a tribute to the hospital and everyone on the staff. It's an important event."

Brenda Benthall, 35, a hairstylist at the Cannon House Office Building Beauty Shop, found out that she was carrying twins just four days before they were born. "I almost jumped off the table," said Benthall, who is a single parent and has no other children.

Jeremy and Joseph were delivered 15 weeks premature, with two of the hospital's special "Code Pink" contingents standing by. Those teams, consisting of a neonatologist (newborn specialist) and an intensive care nurse, moved quickly put into action.

Jeremy's heart was beating and he was breathing at birth but because he was so tiny and his lungs so underdeveloped, a tube was immediately placed in his throat for instant breathing assistance by a respirator in the delivery room.

The boys then were put on special transport and whisked off to the infants' intensive care center. Brenda Benthall, unlike most new mothers, did not see or hold her babies right after they were born.

"Since they told me they probably wouldn't live, I didn't want to see them," she said yesterday. "I didn't want to have a picture in my mind of what they looked like. I felt like I had lost my babies and couldn't bear to see them.

"That night, I couldn't sleep when I realized that I just couldn't do that. I had to see them. I spent half the night waiting for daylight and in the morning I asked the head nurse if I could go down. When I saw Jeremy, they had to hold me up because I hadn't see a baby that small before."

Jeremy, at 480 grams, is the tiniest baby every to survive at the hospital, the record having previously been held by a 620-gram (22 ounce) baby born in 1976.

The intensive care staff had to make its own adjustments to Jeremy's tiny size. The 12 1/2-inch baby was swimming in the smallest Pampers available, so the nurses had to cut the tiniest size in half, to about a 6-by-3-inch diaper. They also had to weigh Jeremy, whose whole hand is 1 1/2 inches long, on a special scale.

Nurses describe both boys as very active, often kicking and crying when they are disturbed for a bath, diaper change or for feeding through a tube. "The twins are really very similar in personality. They both move their arms and legs when they get mad," said Anne Marie Daze, who trains nurses in the intensive care section.

ywhen Benthall comes to visit her sons every afternoon after work, she can play with them through the portholes of the incubators and can help change their diapers. Jeremy is still on oxygen so he does not leave his incubator. For the first time last Saturday, she got to hold Joseph for a few minutes.

"I felt like I was going to break him at first and I was scared to death," she said. "But then I felt like I had been holding him for years. With Jeremy, I just play with his fingers and toes and watch him smile, which he does all the time."

She said it took weeks before she let herself feel encouraged about the twins. "I would just go to the hospital and cry over them. Then as the days went on I just started feeling better and better and all of a sudden they took the respirator off Joseph. And then Jeremy started doing a whole lot better. For the first time, I now feel like I want to go out and buy things for them, like two cribs and two high chairs and stuff."

"My mother says, 'Just leave it in God's hands, there is nothing much you can do,'" said Benthall. "And she's right."

Dr. Scanlon feels that the boys, who are now at about the same weight (2 pounds) and length (14 1/2 inches) are doing reasonably well. "They were both very sick for a long time," he said. "Jeremy just came off the ventilator [respirator] on Tuesday. Fifty-two days on the ventilator, that's a long time. But I think his chances now are pretty good."

Scanlon said that the twins could be in the hospital at least another six weeks. Given the cost of $1,000 per day per baby in intensive care, he expects that the total bill could be $100,000 for each baby. Insurance is expected to cover some, with the rest being absorbed by the hospital.

Scanlon also said that there is good reason to believe that Joseph and Jeremy will develop as normal babies. Jeremy faces greater difficulties, Scanlon said, but the "odds are in his favor -- he has a 4 in 1 chance of being normal." However, said Scanlon, he still "could stop breating, he could get cold, he could develop an infection or neurological problems; he's still very sick. He's a recovering premature baby."

"Jeremy and Joseph aren't out of the woods yet," said Daze. "We all look forward to the day we say goodbye to them at the door. Now that will be news."