A Montgomery County man guided his wife and two children through their burning house to the safety of a bedroom window early yesterday morning, then mysteriously turned around and headed to another room where he died in the smoke and fire.

Neighbors who heard his cries for help said they restrained the man's wife from entering the house to find her husband and were themselves forced back from rescue efforts by heat, flames and blinding smoke.

Firefighters found the body of James W. Schwab, a 44-year-old caterer, in the ground-floor library of the ruined Aspen Hill house only after they had quelled the 2 a.m. fire, which they said had been too hot and dangerous for them to enter the house.

"I called his name," said neighbor George Dimitriadis, who made it about three feet into the ground floor of the two story house at 14009 Burning Bush La. "He called back: 'Please help me, help me."

Forced back by dense smoke and searing heat, Dimitriadis said he tried a second time with the aid of a police officer, but a car exploded about that time in the adjacent garage. "The fire reached me in the face," he said. "It looked like a wall."

Neither fire officials nor neighbors could explain why Schwab, 44, did not leave with his family through a second floor window onto a narrow ledge. Some suggested he was trying get to the ground to catch them when they jumped, and others thought he may have become lost and confused in the dense, choking smoke.

Neighbors said that the children jumped from the ledge under the window and that they had rescued the wife with a ladder. Schwab, however, went down the stairs to the library where his body, with few burn marks but hands bloodied by broken glass, was found stretched on the carpet.

Fire officials said Schwab, a manager for B&B Caterers, had died of smoke inhalation. The fire, they said, was caused by a kitchen stove that had been left on. The house was equipped with fire alarms, officials said.

Neighbor Hilda Preston said she was awakened by Priscilla Schwab's cries and rushed to the house with her husband Charles. They found Priscilla Schwab clinging to the second-story ledge while flames leaped as high as 10 feet above some parts of the roof, Preston said.

Priscilla Schwab, who is a lawyer, and the children, 11-year-old Meredith and 7-year-old Patrick, were reported in good condition at Shady Grove Adventist Hosptial yesterday afternoon, under observation for smoke inhalation.

Dimitriadis said he and Priscilla Schwab rushed to the front door, but, "I stopped her because I knew she was going to get hurt, and I held her outside."

Dimitriadis and other neighbors said they were angry that firefighters took a long time to get hoses connected and to get water on the fire. The first hose they rigged up came unfastened, Dimitriadis said, and the firefighters started to argue over who was to blame.

Dimitriadis also complained that the firefighters did not enter the house to rescue their neighbor until the fire was almost extinguished. "Nobody tried to reach that house," he said. "Nobody put water on this until a lot of time had passed."

Capt. Del Seelye of the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department said he was confident the fire was handled properly, but aknowledged firefighters on the scene had hose problems that would not have taken long to correct.

"In haste to get water to the fire quickly," he said, "one of the hoses was not connected to the pumper and that certainly caused them a little anxiety . . . . It's not the sort of problem that you want to have happen, but it is not totally uncommon in the excitement."

Seelye said that firefighters encountered "such a magnitude of fire in that house, and such high temperatures, that it was not even tenable for a fireman to be working in there . . . . The fire was so big they just couldn't get inside."