Jeannette Wortham sat on a neighbor's couch, in borrowed clothes, and refused to cry.

"You never think," she said in a small tight voice, "that it's going to be your house that burns down."

But on Tuesday afternoon, fire destroyed Wortham's five-bedroom brick house in West Hyattsville, leaving her and seven children homeless. No one was home at the time of the fire.

A spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire Department said the fire stemmed from a small electric heater in the basement that had been left on all day and was too close to furniture. Damage was estimated at $75,000.

To Wortham and her children, however, the most painful losses are incalculable.

"That house had been our home for 16 years and it hurts to lose it," said Wortham, 42, an employe of Suburban National Bank. "But you can replace a house and you can replace clothes. Prom pictures, school pictures, my son's Marine uniforms, my diplomas, the kids' diplomas, my marriage papers, my divorce papers, other precious papers -- those are the things I don't want to think about.

"All those times I told myself I was going to gather everything up and put it in a safety deposit box . . ." she said, shaking her head.

Wortham said she could only guess that one of the younger children had turned the heater back on after she turned it off.

By Wednesday, Wortham and her children, ages 11 to 22, had reached the stoic stage of "All those times I told myself I was going to gather everything up and put it in a safety deposit box . . . ." -- Jeannette Wortham their mourning: They had suffered a tragedy, but it was time to be practical, to call the insurance company, make living arrangements with friends and relatives for the three to four months it will take to rebuild the house.

Tuesday had been a different story.

Eleven-year-old Wallace Wortham came home from Ridgecrest School to find a smoky house. He backed out, slammed the door, and raced to the nearest phone. "Our house is burning! Our house is burning!" he told both his mother and the fire department.

Other members of the family came home from work and school and saw firefighters surrounding the remains of their house.

"The only thing I wanted to do was count the heads of my kids," said Jeannette Wortham.

Next came grief.

"All I could think about was that our house was gone and our Christmas presents were gone and we hadn't gotten around to putting up the screen door we had bought our mother for Christmas and it was gone, too, and all we had were the clothes on our backs," said Naqueeta Wortham, 19.

Then came a gratitude of sorts.

"If this had happened at night when we were sleeping, we would not have gotten out because we all sleep like rocks," said Michelle Wortham, 22, an office worker. "If it had to happen, thank God it happened in the afternoon."

And finally came the numbness.

Michelle Wortham stood on the steps of a neighbor's house Wednesday and looked across at the remains of her home, a brick shell with boarded-up windows.

"It really hasn't sunk in yet that we've lost it," she said. "I'll have to go over there and walk through it and face it.

"It was a pretty house," she said, beginning to cry. "It really was."